World of Warcraft isn't just one of the best games of 2004, it's one of the best games out there, period.

Over ten years ago, Blizzard Entertainment began a little series that it aptly named "Warcraft:Orcs and Humans". The title drew some acclaim in the fairly new and upcoming Real-Time Strategy genre, but it wasn't until the release of Warcraft 2: Tides of Darkness and its expansion Beyond the Dark Portal, that the Warcraft series revolutionized the RTS genre and shot the small Irvine-based developer into the central limelight of PC gaming. Several years later, here we are with a new take on the Warcraft universe. The world of Azeroth has now come alive in the Massive Online RPG genre, a fairly redundant yet highly addictive genre that has been a major force in the PC industry since the releases of titles like Ultima Online and Everquest. Many years of development have past, and now we have what has not only become one of the best MMORPG's ever created, but easily one of the best PC games to date.

World of Warcraft sets the stage for the events that occur approximately four years after the ending sequences in the Frozen Throne, in the lands of Azeroth and Kalimdor. While the game does continue the storyline, it isn't necessary to enjoy this excellent game. Blizzard has done a very good job of setting books and various libraries with passages that detail many of the events that passed not only in the Frozen Throne, but even explain some of the events before when the invasion of Azeroth through the Dark Portal. While the nature of the genre requires that it be fairly open, there are various story points scattered throughout the game that will let you understand some of the events that have taken place since the Frozen Throne timeline, and what has continued on throughout the four year span that none of us are able to experience until now. While the plot may not be as in-depth in regards to the main story as some of us would like, it does a decent job of giving you a background and, as said before, the books can give you some insight as to what's going on so you at least have a vague understanding of the world of Azeroth (keep in mind Azeroth is the name of both the world where World of Warcraft takes place and one of the two islands in the world as well) has been going through these past few years.

World of Warcraft also does not disappoint in the graphics department, providing a very colorful and bright palette that truly brings the game to life in a way similar to another rpg favorite, Final Fantasy X. Many areas are very colorful and detailed, even at some of the lower settings, that you will be truly impressed with the game you are looking at as well as playing. The dwarf and gnome races start out in Dun Morogh, a snowy and hill ridden area filled with Troggs, a certain troll-type monster that permeates throughout the areas, along with your standard winter wolves, polar bears, and such. It's almost a feeling of being in an ancient Viking town, with the many hills and snow that grace the expanse. Duskwood, similar to the Frozen Throne Map of the same name, is very dark and moderately gloomy with an eerie, almost horror or suspense movie feel, with many black wolves and some werewolves to complement them. The trees are a very dark and heavy green, with a few roads running through many areas and leading up to Darkshire, a mysterious town that houses the locals of Duskwood. The large cities do not disappoint either, with the southern human castle of Stormwind providing everyone with an amazingly elaborate and medieval style castle, filled with statues of many heroes lost and strong guards on horses occasionally standing on the inside of the entrance where the Valley of Heroes, a bridge walkway decorated with large 30 or so feet statues of fallen Alliance Heroes. Ironfroge, the home of the dwarves, is a similarly interesting city and is a haven of large smelting pools and forges, built in a wheel-style design with many vendors and trainers surrounding the city, while the many active players disperse and trade throughout what is the likely hub for the Alliance due to a lack of an auction house that is substantial anywhere else (Stormwind still doesn't have an AH as of this time, and the neutral Gagetzan AH isn't that spectacular, plus the idea of selling to your enemies isn't that enticing). While the cities are very expansive and interesting, be prepared for a possible for a system upgrade, because even with a memory of 512, you will get a considerable amount of lag while your computer is busy loading the city locales and all the characters within it, but an upgrade to 1gb will let this run a lot smoother and entering the city eliminates most of these problems, allowing you to maneuver through the city without much trouble. Other areas that are graphically intensive, such as the jungle expanse Stranglethorn Vale, definitely benefit as well, so if you plan on playing the game for a considerable amount of time, it can certainly help improve performance on your particular machine of choice.

Creating your character can be a graphically interesting experience as well. Designing a Tauren, for example, you can have horns that are just typical horns, or you can have one ripped off, so you have a blunt end while the other half is full grown, or if it tickles your fancy you can have no horns. Various other qualities such as what kind of facial hair and the style and color of the hair is also brought into play. A particular dwarf I created had two long almost braided type beards going down both sides of his chest, and had a bald head with a very long ponytail in back. While the possibilities aren't AS vast as they could be, there is certainly enough experimentation that you can come up with a reasonably unique look for your character, and even if you don't, you can get equipment later on down the road through various cloaks or pants that will change the color of specific areas of clothing to make your character not only function differently, but appear varied as well. Some people will also carry the same items as well, so you may resemble other characters as a result of using the same item that might be good for your class, but generally this is a mild occurrence.

The classes with which to choose your character are also pretty good, and even though most of them are the standard rpg fare (Mage, Warrior, Paladin, Priest), some of the other classes that seem unique to World of Warcraft are very cool. The Hunter is one of the more interesting classes, a character who has the ability to tame wild animals to use as pets to tank enemies while he/she fires away at enemies from a distance. The animal also gains levels and has a loyalty meter that must be kept up by the owner with foodstuffs in order to keep the animal happy and also assists in allowing the critter to deal more damage. The Shaman is another interesting class that is a sort of fighter/mage, combined some small melee abilties and ok armor stats with some excellent instant attack magics and heal abilities, making the Shaman one of the more versatile member of the World of Warcraft classes. Various other classes exist, and each class comes equipped with a set of 3 talent trees, akin to Blizzard's classic Diablo 2, and you can choose your talent points in the trees after you hit level 10. Many classes have considerably different talent trees, enabling them to vary how their characters can function and enabling them more success either solo, or in a group depending on which route they choose. A good example is the mage trees, where frost has good escape capabilities and does lots of chill effects to slow down enemies and allow a more methodical way of killing, while the Fire Tree is an explosive damage dealing monstrosity sure to catch any enemies attention, and the Arcane tree is a bit of both, also allowing the casting of some spells that cannot be interrupted, and providing a few interesting abilities to improve mana pools and regeneration.

Many MMORPGs have consisted of combat and options that take a more turn-based or similiar affair, basically targeting an enemy and waiting for your attacks to connect while adding in the occasional special attack. World of Warcraft actually takes a remarkable step and provides an experience that almost gives you the feel of an action rpg or similiar
title, making the gameplay a bit more interactive and much more fresh than your standard massive online game. Combat still consists of targeting an enemy and engaging them, but the interface allows you so many "action buttons", basically hot buttons you can assign to keys on the top of your keyboard to execute various attacks and abilities. Characters generally have many abilities and attacks, and generally you will use many
in the course of any given fight, and you can also have multiple action bars that can be switched with the shift+whatever bar number you need to go to, so assigning many abilities to the hotkeys is not only making things easier, but also makes abilities very easy to use without having to set up a macro for everything. Don't think that you can't macro abilities either, as you can still assign macros to various actions, and even assign those to your action bar to complete a few abilities at the same time. A good example is that if you are assigned to attack the same enemy as a particular individual in any given party, you could set up a macro to assist a given character and set it to a particular button on the action bar, so if you lose sight of your partner in a huge battle, you can locate the same enemy as him so you can expedite the process of clearing a specific area or taking out a difficult foe without having to try and read HP bars and such and determine which enemy they may or may not be attacking. Multiple actions can also be assigned, such as when using a hunter's abilities you can activate Hunter's Mark and have your pet attack, so that you have your ranged bonus assigned for attacks to a particular enemy and you are all ready to assalt the target as soon as your pet has worked his way to the opposition.

Leveling is also a staple of any MMORPG, and keeping it fresh and fun is one of the reasons World of Warcraft is such an incredibly engrossing game. While many games you can spend hours upon hours "grinding", a term to describe constant leveling, World of Warcraft makes you spend very little time doing just mindless leveling, and instead enables a very robust and rewarding system involving the completion of various quests.
Many vary, from just simply killing a particular number of enemies, to delivering a package across the world. Other quests also have you completing class-specific quests, such as collecting a few specific items to create a wand if you go the mage route, to a paladin specific quest that actually offers up your level 40 mount for no cost, an animal that all characters can acquire at 40+ level, something that for most classes runs anywhere from 72 pieces of gold and up. Other quests reward you with some incredibly rare and excellent items, with taking on the boss enemies not only rewarding you with some excellent items but also the completion of a quest will give you even more interesting and useful items. Generally, most quests offer up an item that will appeal to most classes, but there are occasions where it may not be a potentially good item depending on what kind of class and character you chose. Fortunately, many items you get from bosses located within dungeons and from some dungeon quests, can be very profitable and still prove to be worth the trip simply because of the amount of cash it provides you with. So even if the item isn't good for your character, it certainly will be good for the coin purse.

Dungeons in the World of Warcraft are very unique in that they are set up as "instanced" encounters. Basically, whenever you enter a particular instance or dungeon with a party or raid group, you are transported to what is essentially your party's own little version of that particular dungeon. It's the same everytime you enter, but what happens is that it creates the dungeon for your party and yours alone, so that you can take your time and make your way through the encounters located within, and you don't have to worry about high level characters camping a particular boss for a drop that you need to complete a particular quest while they just wait for the potential weapon drops that they can sell for quick cash. This prevents the aforementioned camping, and also allows groups to focus on teamwork rather than speeding through a particular area to get to the boss or particular quest requirement.

Music in the World of Warcraft is also a very exciting affair. While it is a bit upsetting that the tracks you encounter in one area might carry over to another at certain times, it's nice that it does vary the tunes and each area generally at least has its own theme or track that will play some point in during your adventures. One of the better tracks is the tune when entering the Alliance City of Stormwind. The game suprises you with an orchestrated sequence that sounds like you are entering a large battle set in medieval times, with various highs and lows until it settles down to a moderate tone that resembles music present in movies set in the middle ages. It's really a fantastic, heart-pumping track that gets you excited about entering the incredibly large and glorius city. Other musical pieces, such as one present in Tanaris, a desert located in Southern Kalimdor, has a eccentricity to it that is very mysterious with some high pitched notes that definitely set it apart from other themes present throughout the game. Other areas seem to be more associated with the monsters or enemies(commonly referred to as ("mobs") also contain their own themes and various tunes. Ogre camps are a good example, often presented with large amounts of bass and some incredibly fully forced "booms" associated with their themes. Overall, the variations and themes do a good job of fully representing the areas and locales throughout the game with some great music.

PvP, long a staple feature included with many massive online rpgs, and an especially important component of games like DAOC, is a bit lackluster as of the current time period, even if you choose to enjoy yourself on any given PvP server that is available as of this time. Although it is still rewarding to take down an opposing member of any given faction at any time, the servers are overloaded with "gankers", people who take pleasure in walking through lower level areas at higher levels and taking out numerous members of the opposing faction who are a considerably lower level than them. Long as you can deal with that, PvP servers give a certain sense of realism to the game and allow you to get a full experience that you have to be on your guard, and if you have higher level friends you can always ask for the cavalry to come and guard you for a bit, along with maybe assisting with some power leveling or quests. On normal servers or RP(role-playing) servers, PvP is obviously a bit more reserved, mostly restricted to those who choose to either flag themselves as PvP, essentially making them free game to any member of the opposing faction, or those who engange in attacking a town of the opposing faction. Blizzard definitely has plenty of rewards later on for player vs player combat, as well as the newly hyped Battlegrounds, which will almost simulate a battle playing out in a game of Frozen Throne, but it will have many interesting offesive and defensive options, which will hopefully be utilized by the players of World of Warcraft to create a dynamic experience that will simulate a large battle. While the PvP system is still being tweaked and looks to be promising, it also makes it seems as though Blizzard felt the game needed to be released, even if they couldn't finish including everything they planned out of the box. You could look at it on either side of the coin, but the positive end of it is that Blizzard has always been a great company when it comes to supporting their players, long after a game has hit its peak in sales, throwing out mods, games, and various holiday themed experiences for players, so the fact that this game also has a monthly fee associated with it will likely prove to have an even greater amount of support in
the future.

Maintenance, an unfortunate but necessary aspect of the MMORPG, has proven to be a moderate achilles heel of Blizzard's otherwise fantastic first try at the massive online rpg genre. While they have the general maintenance every Tuesday from 6-10 am PST, some other problems have arisen that are proving to be troublesome. Even with all the experience they have in the past with the incredibly successful battle.net, the popularity of the game has constantly overwhelmed Blizzard's servers, along with some patch issues where some people are unable to access the game for hours or even sometimes days at a time, or access in restricted to a queue to somehow control the number of players accessing the game on any given server and provide a "quick fix". While this is certainly very disheartening, Blizzard has been a very good sport and is constantly handing out additional free days to try and at least compensate for the loss in playtime and server stability. While this obviously isn't a complete fix, it's certainly much more than what has been done in the past with some other massive online games like Everquest, where emergency maintenance was required and basically the player was out of luck in a lot of cases. So despite the problems, Blizzard is still showing that their fans always come first, and they are dedicated to administering a well made product and making it the best it can be.

Another upside, as anyone with any other Blizzard game will know, is that many updates are planned for the game, not just because the game doesn't have ALL it's content active, but because Blizzard is always adding new and interesting areas to an already fantastic game, and they want to keep balance issues to a minimum so that all the classes have their strengths and weaknesses in all forms of gameplay. Many issues have already been addressed through the many patches, and an especially large patch was recently released that added some considerable content to the game and fixed a handful of bugs and issues with the game, as well as addressing many balance issues and lowering some costs for various classes, as well as adding a few new abilities.

Many other options, such as guild formations and raiding parties, standard MMORPG fare, are here for players to explore and convene to combine power and might against the opposing factions. Guilds generally range from a minimum of 10 members to get a charter going, and you get the options of designing your own tabard and can even set up your own guild messages as reminders, which is generally standard in many other massive online rpg games. Assigning particular rankings to the individuals within a guild is also interesting, and is a good way to distribute responsibility and rank within any given guild.

Overall, World of Warcraft is a game that any PC gamer should not be without. Even if you haven't played any other Massive Online rpg before, the game does such a fantastic job of keeping a good flow and pace that anyone can enjoy it. World of Warcraft is just another fantastic release by a company that is quite easily the best PC game developer today, if not the best in the industry. Whether or not you enjoy MMORPG's, this game is sure to appeal to any fan. World of Warcraft isn't just one of the best games of 2004, it's one of the best games out there, period.

-Joey Bianchi