No game has done more to make MMORPG a household word in North America than World of Warcraft (WoW). Since its launch in Nov. 2004, the game has been breaking records and receiving stellar reviews. I think we can safely say that the world of persistent worlds will never be the same. Without repeating too much of what I've already said in previous articles on the game, here's a look at the current state of WoW.
Just Another MMORPG?
It's worth considering what has made WoW such an incredible success when at its core, it follows a formula many of us are all too familiar with. Killing NPC mobs and completing rather mundane quests to gain experience levels so that you can kill tougher mobs is really nothing new. Nor is throwing in some player versus player (PvP) combat at the end to give higher level characters something else to do. Perhaps the most exceptional thing about WoW is the pace at which this progress is made.
Most MMORPGs force players into a significant amount of "downtime." Downtime can involve everything from sitting to regenerate your power bars after a fight, to having to run back to your corpse after you die. It's time when your character isn't directly engaged in gaining either experience or cash. You are generally required to take one of these short breaks after every few monsters you kill.
By comparison, WoW has reduced the amount of time you spend doing nothing but watching your health and mana supply recover to an absolute minimum. Food and water, which, as usual, speed up the recovery process but can't be consumed in combat, are abundant in WoW, and they act very quickly.
Visually, WoW is quite stunning, even though this is due more to artistry than it is to fancy technology. Anyone who has seen a screenshot of it can see that the emphasis is not on realism, but rather on creating a detailed world with the unique personality of the strategy series. Things do have a somewhat blocky appearance, but this has allowed Blizzard to use extremely smooth animation and keep hardware requirements relatively low.
The interface has improved over the last few months, giving players more shortcut bars and a few other options they can customize. It's intuitive and easy enough that you will adjust quickly whether you've been playing MMORPGs for years or WoW is your first one.
Choosing a race and class are the most important decisions that need to be made when creating a character. Your race determines whether you belong to the Alliance or the Horde, which are Azeroth's two warring factions.
Unlike RPGs that base your progress on which skills you use, WoW uses the familiar class-based level system. The abilities and equipment you will be able to use are decided largely by what class you chose to play. While you gain a little flexibility when you start receiving skill points at level 10, it's a long way from the freedom you have in skill-based games like Ultima Online, Asheron's Call, and Saga of Ryzom.
There are ways to customize your character's appearance, but they are sparse compared to those of other MMORPGs. Combined with classes that restrict what gear you can use, and a large number of players, it's not uncommon to run into characters that are almost identical to your own.
Quests are remarkably well-implemented in WoW. While the majority are of the routine "collect this" and "deliver that" variety, others are actually quite complex. In some cases, for example, you will be required to protect a certain NPC as it travels to another location. Hunting mobs is a viable way to gain experience, but completing quests at the same time is the quickest way to advance your character.
Quest givers are clearly marked with an exclamation mark over their heads, and there are also various indicators to let you know who you have talk to when the quest is complete. The quest log is very convenient, and you can pursue as many as 20 quests at the same time. For the most part, WoW is solo friendly, and, unlike most MMORPGs, it's possible to reach the highest levels of the game without being forced to group with other players.
As well as standard quests, there are also quests that are connected to instanced zones which you can play through without interference from outside your group. The game truly shines when you are tackling instanced quests, as they are imaginatively designed and require a great deal of cooperation with the rest of your party. The downside is that finding an appropriate group can be time consuming, and then it can take several hours to get the job done. If key members of the group have to leave part way through, it's unlikely that the remaining members will be able to complete the quest.