Though massively multiplayer online role-playing games have been around for years, it has taken this long for the genre's breakthrough hit to finally emerge. Here is the online role-playing game you should play, no matter who you are. This is because World of Warcraft brings out all the best aspects of this style of gaming, if not many of the best aspects of gaming in general. It also features many of the specific characteristics that have made Blizzard Entertainment's previous games so entertaining, memorable, long-lasting, and successful. Of course, the company's past track record did not guarantee that World of Warcraft could have turned out this well. Such high quality simply cannot be expected, nor should it be missed.
In World of Warcraft, you create your alter ego by choosing from a variety of colorful races and powerful classes, and then you begin exploring, questing, and battling in Azeroth, the fantasy setting featured in Blizzard's Warcraft real-time strategy games. Fans of those games (especially Warcraft III and its expansion pack) will spot tons of references here, and they will be impressed at how faithfully World of Warcraft translates so many of Warcraft's little details and even some of the finer points of its gameplay into such a seemingly different style of game. Meanwhile, fans of other online role-playing games will be impressed at the sheer breadth and volume of content on display in World of Warcraft, whose setting seamlessly connects a bunch of wildly different-looking types of places and somehow makes them appear as if they all belong as parts of a whole.
World of Warcraft is superficially similar to numerous other games that came before it, and it clearly draws inspiration from some of them. The fundamentals are all here, such as fighting dangerous creatures (optionally including other players), exploring the countryside either alone or in the company of other players, undertaking various quests, gaining experience levels and new abilities, and acquiring powerful items. However, directly comparing World of Warcraft with any of its predecessors would be almost like pitting a professional sports club against a school team. With all due respect to the other online role-playing games out there, World of Warcraft is in a league of its own. The game clearly benefits from not being the first of its kind, as the design issues that plagued previous online role-playing games are handled extremely well in World of Warcraft. In addition, the game's own subtle innovations turn out to have a dramatic impact on the flow of the action from minute to minute, hour to hour, day to day, and beyond. So the particulars of the game's design--along with its incredibly vast, beautiful, majestic world--translate into a one-of-a-kind experience that seems fresh and original in its own right.
Fortunately, the game is very approachable. World of Warcraft is a complex game whose complexity is carefully disguised by a simple, highly legible, uncluttered interface and an impressive 3D graphics engine, which delivers high performance on a wide range of systems while not skimping on pure flash. The game's interface is so slick and easy to learn and understand, and the gameplay itself is so quickly intuitive, that there isn't even a tutorial to wade through; there are just some helpful, optional pop-up tool tips, as well as an excellent printed reference manual that goes into specific detail about most of the various aspects of play. It's also important to point out that World of Warcraft runs fast and smooth. You can go from your desktop to being in-game in just seconds, and it's virtually just one great, big, seamless world. Loading times are as rare as they are brief. They only crop up when traveling across the game's enormous continents or entering some specific higher-level zones that are instanced for each player group, which guarantees you a fresh challenge.
So World of Warcraft is painless to get into--with the possible exception of you needing a credit card or prepaid game card to create an account, as well as initially deciding on which sort of character to play, since so many of the options seem like they could be interesting. And it turns out they are. So why not try them all? The game lets you create multiple characters on the dozens of different available "realms," each of which is a unique instance of the gameworld that is capable of hosting thousands of simultaneous players. Some of the realms cater to role-playing fans that prefer to play in character the whole time, while other realms are custom-tailored for player-versus-player action. Regardless, World of Warcraft's realms are nicely (if not densely) populated already, and the unfortunate issues with login and lag that plagued the game when it first launched were mostly taken care of in a matter of days. The game just has a solid feel to it that's uncharacteristic of the genre, and for an online RPG, World of Warcraft is surprisingly responsive. Actually, no qualifications are necessary: World of Warcraft boasts the tight control and polished presentation that's desirable in any kind of game.
After countless hours spent playing, the great first impression doesn't wear off. This style of gaming is notorious for being a time sink and for effectively forcing players to engage in repetitive, monotonous gameplay for hours on end in order to make progress. But in contrast, World of Warcraft will keep throwing variety at you, and the combat system at the heart of it features fast, visceral, action-packed battles that are fun and intense, whether you're fighting alone or in a group. Furthermore, World of Warcraft finally achieves that long-sought-after goal of many massively multiplayer games, which is to make the player feel rewarded regardless of how much time he or she invests in a single sitting.
This is due to several key reasons. For one, World of Warcraft has a nice, brisk pace to it, and the fast-loading, seamless world obviously has a lot to do with this. But, in addition, recovery times between battles are minimal, as even those characters without healing spells can still easily recover from their wounds by using bandages, eating a quick meal, or just from natural healing. The battles themselves are quick, too, and they scale nicely so that higher-level encounters don't just seem to drag on. Yet the pacing of the combat seems to strike a perfect balance, because it's not so hectic that those unaccustomed to fast-paced action games will feel overwhelmed. You can also look forward to facing some fairly intelligent foes that will do such things as flee when injured, tag-team with their comrades, and use some dastardly special abilities against you.
Much of World of Warcraft is structured around questing, so there's always something to do or somewhere to go, even if you don't have a lot of time. Whenever you enter a major new location for the first time, you'll feel almost overwhelmed by the number of quests available, which you'll be able to clearly spot since quest-giving characters helpfully stand there with a big, noticeable exclamation mark over their heads. Luckily, the game's more-than-a-thousand quests are made quite manageable by only being offered to you when you're qualified to complete them, and you can have no more than 20 quests pending at a time. So you'll eventually be forced to pick and choose, but this is for the best. The quests will always be there waiting for you until you accomplish them.
Though you may venture out into the wilderness and spend hours hunting monsters for the sake of it if you so choose, you'll always be able to undertake quests that help give a bit more meaning and context to your actions, flesh out the game's interesting fiction, and, perhaps most importantly, frequently yield useful items and a good chunk of money and experience for your trouble. Some quests are highly involved, multipart affairs that naturally entice you to broaden your horizons and venture forth into previously unexplored territory. Other quests challenge you to venture deep into enemy territory. It's here where grouping with other players seems most natural, because it gives you an edge in battle and because some quests can seem a bit too popular for their own good. This is maybe one of the only apparent design issues in the game: Sometimes you'll effectively have to wait your turn for a certain enemy or quest object to respawn, while at other times, foes will keep spawning in so quickly that you'll barely have a moment to catch your breath. Both types of cases can seem a bit silly, but since the underlying action and exploration is so good, "a bit silly" is about as bad as it gets. Other rough edges, such as monster "corpses," which occasionally can be seen standing upright and looking very much alive, could probably be counted on one hand. For what it's worth, we also encountered a few specific, minor issues with a few quests, though none of this really affected our progress or enjoyment of the game, and as with any online RPG, it's all subject to improvement.
Though the world of the game is very large, you can still effectively travel on foot, taking in the often breathtaking sights of Azeroth in between key points (you even earn some experience just for setting foot in new territory for the first time). As you explore, you'll also discover a variety of means of rapid transit. For instance, you'll be able to quickly and conveniently cover large distances by flying on the backs of gryphons, wyverns, and more, which can ferry you from point to point for a small fee. But before you can begin zooming about through the skies, you'll need to reach each destination by foot, which means there's definitely going to be a lot of legwork. Luckily, the sights and sounds of Azeroth, the network of roads and road signs in the relatively civilized areas, and the presence of a very helpful onscreen minimap as well as a full map, collaborate to make the simple act of running from point to point surprisingly pleasurable. It also helps that you can simply run away from most aggressive foes, as they'll lose interest in you and go back to their business if you keep moving.
Of course, player death is inevitable in a game such as this, but it's here where one of World of Warcraft's most unlikely innovations rears its head: Death in this game really is nothing to get bent out of shape about, so when you get killed, don't worry. Previous games of this type have made it a point of penalizing the player upon death (death should be very bad, right?), such as by inflicting an increasingly steep experience point penalty, directly resulting in a sense of failure and wasted time. More-recent online RPGs have doled out more-lenient penalties in the interest of appealing to more players, but World of Warcraft all but eliminates the sense of penalty altogether--which turns out to be a great thing. Here, death mostly just puts you out of the action for a bit, which is undesirable enough as it is. You automatically respawn as a ghost (or a wisp in the case of the night elf race) at the nearest graveyard, and you can usually double back pretty quickly to where you fell; alternatively, a healer-type character can resurrect you, or you can choose to come back to life at the graveyard (although you'll be weakened for a while if you do this). When you die, your items' durability will also degrade slightly, though this isn't permanent in the long run or harmful in the short run. You'll simply need to pay to get them repaired by certain types of non-player characters before their durability ratings drop to zero and they're rendered useless. In all, the game's death penalty feels just right, in that it's consequential without being frustrating.
Another of the game's subtle but important design innovations is there to benefit those who can't necessarily commit to making World of Warcraft a huge part of everyday life (as much as it can threaten to do so). The way it works is that whenever you're not playing the game, your character is considered to be in a rest state. When you return to a well-rested character, you'll temporarily accrue double the experience points you'd normally earn by defeating monsters, and the more time you spend between play sessions, the longer you'll enjoy the experience bonus when you resume play. The result isn't a system that penalizes hardcore players because they are still going to advance much faster than those who can't spare as much time. It mostly just gives everyone else a little incentive to keep coming back and to not feel bad about taking several days off from the game. You'll get a nice tailwind as you try to catch up to your friends who kept playing during the time that you took off.
These types of smart design choices would mean little if the actual act of playing as one of World of Warcraft's various combinations of races and classes wasn't enjoyable in and of itself. Fortunately, you pretty much can't go wrong with whichever type of character you opt for. There aren't an exhaustive number of races and classes here, but there's still plenty to choose from: eight different races and nine different classes, though not every class is available to every race. In contrast to some other such games, each of the classes feels very well developed. That is, there's no real sense of "class envy" in World of Warcraft (except maybe in player-versus-player combat). In most other online RPGs, many players invariably feel like they made a mistake in their choice of character class after a while, and they become acutely aware of their character's limitations and other characters' apparent strengths. Of course, those other characters have significant limitations of their own. In World of Warcraft, though, every class seems like the "best" choice. Each character class feels powerful and self-reliant from the get-go. No matter which type of character you choose to play, from a warrior to a mage, you'll be able to hold your own against the game's variety of monsters while also contributing significantly to a group of players.
Each of the character classes is quite deep. The hunter and the warlock are ranged attack specialists who get to fight alongside pets that can help deal damage and distract foes. The warrior, rogue, and paladin are multitalented fighters, capable of drawing their enemies' wrath from their more-fragile, magic-using allies, and temporarily bolstering their own abilities while crippling their opponents. The priest, shaman, and mage learn a variety of different spells that make them quite a bit more versatile than what's conventional. And the druid can learn to shape-shift into different animal forms, so it's kind of like a hybrid of many of the other classes. The classes feel pretty distinct right from the start, though they start to get really interesting at the 10th level when each one gets a signature ability of some sort. But it's not like you need to trudge through a bunch of experience levels waiting for the game to entertain you. From the get-go, even as you encounter lots of new quests and areas to explore, you'll also find tons of new equipment and gain lots of new or improved abilities.
The benefit of having a limited selection of character classes to choose from is that each one gets to be viable and interesting. The potential problem of this, though, is that you can end up with a gameworld populated by a whole bunch of cookie-cutter characters. Fortunately, the good variety of different character appearances and equipment help to keep things diverse from a superficial standpoint, and the presence of the talent and profession systems keep things diverse from a gameplay standpoint, too. Talents come into play starting at the 10th level, and they let you marginally improve your character's core abilities. This is represented by a multitiered character skill tree much like that of Blizzard's own Diablo II. You get a talent point each time you level up, and certain, more-significant talents become unlocked once you spend enough points completing their prerequisites. Whereas the new abilities you gain from leveling up tend to be instantly gratifying, the talent system is more about planning and differentiating your character over the long haul, and it works great in this regard. Since you can see all the potential talents available to your character, it can be fun to plan out how you'll be spending your next 40 or 50 levels' worth of points (even though it'll probably take you months to actually accomplish that plan). And should you ever decide you made a mistake, it's possible to reset your talent points and redistribute them.
Meanwhile, the game's profession system is a way for characters to lead productive lives outside of all the ugly, dirty business of questing and fighting. Professions mainly fall into two categories: gathering and production skills. You may have two professions at a time, and if you wish to be self-sufficient, then you'll opt for an obvious combination of one of each. For instance, a combination of skinning and leatherworking lets you claim valuable resources from slain beasts and then turn those resources into sturdy equipment. Or a combination of herbalism and alchemy will let you find and collect precious plants out in the field, and then brew them into a variety of useful potions. Blacksmithing, engineering, and cooking are some of the other options, and it's possible to mix and match professions however you wish. Regardless of what you decide, the goods you gather or make will be in demand. If they're not immediately useful to you or your friends, you can auction them off to the highest bidder, which you can do by going through one of the game's auction houses located in some of the biggest metropolitan areas. World of Warcraft's profession system is streamlined and easy to get into, much like the rest of the game. More importantly, it lets you quickly make useful things or some good money. Incidentally, one great way to put your handmade goods into the right hands is via the in-game postal service, which lets you send items as well as messages to other players even when they're offline. Part of Azeroth's charm is that, despite the predominantly medieval flavor, it features these types of relatively modern accoutrements.
Another one of World of Warcraft's great successes is how it makes your choice of character race have a noticeable impact on the gameplay. Like any online RPG, the game lets you choose from a variety of dramatically different-looking types of characters, from the hulking orcs to the limber night elves. But unlike most games of this type, the difference between the characters cuts below the surface. For one thing, each race has certain unique traits, like the tauren having a war stomp ability, which can stun their attackers for a while, and the burly dwarves being naturally more skilled with rifles than other races. Certain classes also have slightly different abilities depending on the race. But what really distinguishes the races is that, depending on your choice, your allegiance and starting location will change--and the variations here can be pretty extreme.
The eight races comprise two opposing factions: the alliance, consisting of humans, dwarves, night elves, and gnomes; and the horde, consisting of orcs, trolls, the tauren, and the undead (the latter of which are "forsaken," and not friendly with your regular old-fashioned, mindless undead). The game takes place in the wake of the events of Warcraft III and its expansion pack, and it explains that the conflict between these factions is ideological in nature, instead of being just a pure good-versus-evil thing. Regardless, members of one faction generally won't be well received by the opposing side; they'll sooner be attacked on sight. So your allegiance determines who your enemies are as well as which half of the world you'll be spending much more time in, at least at first.
There are six completely different starting points (the dwarves and gnomes, and the orcs and trolls, share residence), as well as six corresponding major cities (whose guards helpfully provide directions to points of interest should you need them), plus countless little towns, outposts, towers, caves, shrines, and so forth. Depending on your starting point, you'll get to undertake different quests, face different monsters, explore different territory, and so on. There are class-specific quests, too, so if you stick with a single character in World of Warcraft, you won't nearly see the breadth of the game's content (although you'll still get to see an awful lot). Even though the questing is roughly equivalent regardless of the race you choose, you'll definitely get a different sort of experience with each one. Nevertheless, in the simplest of terms, most of the quests either charge you with killing some stuff or transporting something somewhere, and all the quests descriptions are written out, so be prepared for a fair bit of reading. Of course, your choice of race and gender also superficially affects your in-game personality. In a nice touch, each race and gender combination has a variety of different verbal quips as well as its own little dance. Blizzard has always done a good job of imbuing its characters with personality, and it succeeds at this once again in World of Warcraft.
As mentioned, player-versus-player combat is available in World of Warcraft. In the vast majority of realms, it's purely consensual. For example, at any point, two characters may choose to engage in a nonlethal duel. But there's also some full-on gang-style warfare to partake in if you so choose. There are certain higher-level fringe territories in Azeroth that are considered neutral or contested, and it's here where the alliance and the horde may attack each other. In PvP realms, these attacks may happen indiscriminately, much to your chagrin if you're just minding your own business and questing alone. Your choice of realm is obviously important, but fundamentally, the PvP combat is fun and exciting like the rest of the combat. Each character class' versatility can really come into play when you're faced with a squad of player-controlled foes.
However, the fullest potential of the game's PvP elements has yet to be realized. The idea is that those who engage in PvP competition will earn honor points, which can be redeemed for certain benefits and bonuses, while those who just go around bullying low-level players may earn dishonor, resulting in penalties that ought to discourage such behavior. Furthermore, special battleground zones expressly suited for large-scale PvP competition will give further incentive for you to square off against the opposing faction. This all sounds great, but it's not prevalent in the game immediately postlaunch. It's apparent that World of Warcraft is a player-versus-environment game first and foremost, but the building blocks are there to make it a very interesting competitive game as well. In addition to taking on some epic encounters (suitable for massive raiding parties comprising dozens of players) and the ability to purchase and ride a variety of fast-moving mounts, the PvP combat is presumably what will keep many players coming back after they've already invested the hundreds of hours necessary to max out their character's experience.
No small part of the pleasure of playing World of Warcraft comes from admiring its richly detailed, visually inspired gameworld. The game sports its own cohesive, highly stylized look that's influenced by comic book art and anime, so it's far less "vanilla" than the look of most games and therefore likely to polarize players. Most of these players will probably think World of Warcraft looks fantastic, while a few of them might not like these characters' exaggerated features and animations, perhaps because they don't look realistic. At any rate, from an artistic standpoint, it's hard to deny that World of Warcraft is impressive. Not only is the game filled with tons of imaginative characters and creatures, but the topography of the world itself seems vibrant, larger than life, and incredible in scope, yet somehow believable because the art direction is so consistent.
You'll spot some excellent little details as you play, such as birds fluttering high up in the sky or squirrels and rabbits skittering about or skeletons of slain friends and foes dotting the landscape in the aftermath of a PvP skirmish. The various weather effects are also outstanding. In a great touch, the game takes place in real time, so if you play at night, it'll be nighttime in Azeroth too (and Azeroth is quite a sight to behold regardless of the time of day). But the best part about the game's visual presentation is how everything blends together: how one distinctive-looking area can somehow subtly transition into a new type of terrain that looks completely different, and how indoor and outdoor environments are seamlessly integrated. And again, what the game lacks in polygon counts--many of the character models look great, but aren't incredibly detailed--it more than makes up for in artistry and pure performance.
World of Warcraft also sounds uncharacteristically excellent for an online RPG. Subtle ambient effects work wonderfully in concert with the visuals, making the world seem that much more alive. Excellent audio cues highlight key moments, such as when you level up, when a friend of yours comes online, or when you accept or accomplish a quest. Beautifully composed symphonic music punctuates your travels, perfectly synchronizing with the sense of wonder you will likely experience as you set foot into the game's different, colorful regions. The music truly is outstanding, but by default it plays rather softly, mostly just for an extra bit of ambience. Meanwhile, Warcraft III fans will feel right at home during battles, which feature many of the same hard-hitting effects, as well as plenty of new ones. The game even makes great use of stereo effects as well as other audio tricks, resulting in clear and resonant echoes within cavernlike environments, in audio distortion when exploring or fighting underwater, and in other such things. World of Warcraft also makes good use of speech, both for player characters' occasional outbursts and also for all non-player characters, who'll verbally greet you, which helps evoke their personalities. Many of the enemies you'll face also make some rather memorable noises when you manage to draw their wrath.
The worst thing about World of Warcraft is that you can't just play it all the time. After all, chances are if you start, you'll never want to stop. Again, though, part of what makes this game so remarkable is it doesn't assume that all you have to do in your busy life is play this one game, and so it delivers a high-quality experience regardless of how much or how little time you're able to invest. Paradoxically, then, it can become the last game you'd need to play for weeks, months...who knows? The point is, World of Warcraft features an overall level of quality that's typically reserved for the best offline games, which have always had a leg up on online games in their ability to present tightly-woven, story-driven settings. But World of Warcraft achieves this in the context of a massive, evolving world populated by thousands of other players who you may choose to interact with, which makes the proceedings seem that much more meaningful. This is a stunning achievement that will make you feel privileged to be a game player.