It seems that you can't move without stumbling across a massively multiplayer game these days, with several major offerings already online and an apparently endless barrage of new titles on their way over the next couple of years. So the prospect of Blizzard joining this headlong rush with a new Warcraft role-playing game immediately brought to mind the words "band" and "wagon".
The good news is that World of Warcraft is already shaping up to be far more than a tacky second-rate spin-off or an attempt to cash-in on the latest buzz word, and if nothing else the game's visuals should help it to stand out from the ever growing online crowd. Like Warcraft III, it has a stylised cartoon-like feel which is eye-catching without being overly cutesy. From curvaceous half-timbered medieval villages and farms to lush jungles and wide sandy beaches, everything is beautifully detailed while still looking like a twisted caricature. This world basks in the glow of the now traditional dynamic lighting, shown off in the demonstration we saw by a lighthouse casting its beam into the night as waves gently lapped on the shoreline below. The result is a nice middle ground between the extremes of overhyped photo-realism and gimmicky cel shading. The character models are equally impressive, with humans, orcs and bull-like taurens all intricately detailed and lovingly animated. Monsters range from fantasy staples such as the kobold (here portrayed as rat-like creatures with backpacks) to more outlandish creatures, including what appeared to be a Freddy Kruger look-a-like with glowing red eyes and fence posts attached to its back. The mind boggles.
The gameplay underlying the graphics is what really counts though, and at the moment it's hard to say whether Blizzard can bring anything new to the genre. On the surface it looks like more of the same, but there are some tweaks and tucks to the formula. Perhaps most importantly Blizzard are promising faster-paced gameplay with shorter, more tactical fights and less "downtime" between them. Given how tedious the current crop of online worlds can be, this is probably a good thing. The game will also feature more involved multi-part quests, ranging from short tasks you can complete in an hour or less to epic missions that will keep you busy for days at a time. The idea is to always have "something meaningful" for the player to do, regardless of whether you're just having a quick burst on the game or an all-night marathon. Blizzard's effort also has the advantage of being able to draw on several years worth of back story and settings from the Warcraft real-time strategy series and the cancelled Warcraft Adventures spin-off. This should really pay off when it comes to creating an on-going storyline for players to take part in once the game has launched, and to maintain consistency the writer behind Warcraft III is also sketching out a plot for the online game.
World of Warcraft is looking promising if not exactly revolutionary, but the biggest question surrounding the game is when will we actually get to play it for ourselves. When Blizzard first announced it at ECTS a few months ago, designer Bill Roper joked that "whatever release date I give you, you won't believe it .. and you'd probably be right". Shipping games on schedule has never been one of Blizzard's strongpoints, and massively multiplayer games have a much longer development cycle than those of any other genre to start with. Certainly we wouldn't expect to see the game until well into 2003, and by then players may be justifiably cynical given the remarkable lack of innovation we've seen elsewhere in the genre so far. Whether cartoonish graphics and the Warcraft name will be enough to overcome that remains to be seen.