The simplest things are often the most captivating. That moment in ICO when you first jumped a gap and Yorda leapt after you, grabbing your hand as she tumbled into the abyss. The first time you managed to rocket-jump in Quake. The first four-lines-tall group of blocks you cleared in Tetris. Too often we've had to forego the life-sapping pleasures of MMORPGs in the past because of time and resource constraints, but if we had to isolate one thing in particular about World of Warcraft that gave us the patience and commitment to continue, given the precedents above it probably wouldn't be too surprising to learn that it's one of the least interactive and most basic things you can do in Blizzard's world: grab a taxi ride.
The World of Warcraft is vast, no doubt about it, but covering the distance between the Human city of Stormwind and the Dwarf stronghold of Ironforge was hardly a chore; in fact it was masterful exhibition of the level of artistic style and polish that the Californian developer has put into its first massively multiplayer game. Mounting a griffon within the relative confines of the resplendent Stormwind, we were flown gracefully and precariously out through the city walls, past towering statues of heroes of the Alliance, over the verdant dew-specked forests dotted with farmhouses and cottages, across the arid, rocky and desolate mountainous regions beyond, up the thrashing columns of vast waterfalls and over snowy peaks before diving inside a mountain, circling caverns full of molten rock geysers and gliding to the ground to make our way.
Tracking The Snowfall
Blizzard hasn't developed a massively multiplayer online role-playing game before, but it's never been shy of trying its hand at new things. Having begun life as a 16-bit console game developer under a different name, the company sowed the first seeds of what would become its bread and butter with Warcraft: Orcs and Humans, a PC game that took a single Orc enemy from the company's Blackthorne title and made it the stylistic basis of an entire fantasy strategy franchise. Orcs and Humans would probably be even more celebrated if it weren't for the magnificence of what followed. Warcraft II was revolutionary - stylistically, addictively, narratively and comically mature, and one of the cornerstones of early network multiplayer culture.
Then, as the company determinedly tried to turn the delayed Starcraft project into the game it wanted to be remembered for, it found another hit with click-fest hackandslash Diablo, which, along with its sequel, is responsible for swallowing more evenings than many of the massively multiplayer games the company now seeks to emulate. The tonally fascinating Starcraft finally emerged to critical acclaim - and still enjoys a fanatical following, particularly in Asia - and Warcraft III ultimately sold many millions of copies worldwide following its eventual release. Even the company's online Battle.net service continues to serve thousands of gamers on a nightly basis - and Blizzard shows no signs of letting that side of its business slip.
Trying new things is, of course, something that we critics lovingly applaud, but it's the company's high standards and sensible release policy that fuel the high quality that's key to maintaining that pattern of experimentation. It's a chicken and egg thing, really - you can't afford to work outside the rules and continually delay projects to get them right if you haven't already been doing it all to proven effect for many years - but fortunately at this point Blizzard already has both the chicken and the egg well in hand, as evidenced by the extraordinary patience that publisher Vivendi-Universal Games has shown them for as long as anyone can remember.
So, while Blizzard hasn't developed a massively multiplayer online role-playing game before, expectations are nevertheless high amongst the developer's many fans - and that, more even than WoW's reception as part of the well stocked MMORPG genre, may be the key to its success. There's symmetry between the developer and the developer's audience - for the most part the massive World of Warcraft team and the soon-to-be citizens of Azeroth, us included, are taking the journey together for the first time. And, as we said after we stepped off our first griffon, the journey itself is shaping up to be a captivating spectacle.
A New Journey
On that basis though, you might reasonably anticipate that the set-up itself is, to a certain extent at least, steeped in proven MMORPG convention. As you start out you're expected to pick from a clutch of some eight different races (Humans, Dwarves, Gnomes, Night Elves, Orcs, Trolls, Tauren, Undead) split into nine different classes (Druid, Hunter, Mage, Paladin, Priest, Rogue, Shaman, Warlock, Warrior), and divided again into Alliance and Horde factions - the goodies and the baddies, for want of a better description. You can manually customise or just randomise your appearance, choose which gender you'd like to be, give your character a funny name (and, with apologies to Blizzard's Chris Sigaty, "Grom" is not a funny name), and then spawn on a server for the first time.
Once there you're expected to take on quests, establish yourself by learning a pair of professions (previously known as 'trade-skills'), mix with your fellow adventurers, level-up your character by earning experience from plundering and experimentation, and even just plain old exploring - find a new area and it'll be marked on your map forever more and you'll earn experience points for discovering it. Eventually, you'll also invest in the talents system, which helps define your character's individuality - the idea being that by placing the customisation largely in the hands of the talents system, you can pick virtually any combination of race and class to start with and not find yourself hamstrung by your choices at a later date when you decide to branch out. You'll be able to unlearn professions pretty easily should you want to try your hand at something else, but unlearning talents will be a bit harder. Blizzard views these as the defining characteristics of your adventurer, so there will probably be a specific quest or cost associated with unlearning talents, and any time you might try to reacquire that talent at a later date you'll have to go through the process of becoming proficient at it all over again.
But, just in case any of your eyes are starting to glaze over, it's important to stress that Blizzard is making the sense of accessibility key to the way the game works, minimising the dullness that sometimes pervades other MMORPGs as the player or group moves between objectives and enemies. World of Warcraft tries to make it obvious where to go, for a start - non-player characters with quests to offer are marked out by question marks floating over their heads, and they also appear on a mini-map, while NPCs whose quests you've already accepted are marked with grey question mark icons. Quests are also colour-coded to reflect difficulty, which is revised as you level up, and you can also invite a friend to share in the quest you're tackling, without him having to go off and find the spot where you picked it up in the first place.
Staying In The Game
The game also keeps you informed of things like how many boar you've killed as part of a starter-quest; there's a sparkling effect on dead bodies which have not yet been looted; and in general the quest system guides you in the right direction. The idea is to stamp out confusion that might conspire to spoil the experience early on. Even later on the game aims to maintain this standard of logic - quests will be logged forever until you discard them, and it'll be obvious which ones are still in progress and which not, and even as you level up the team wants to keep it lively and have you find new quests rewarding in different ways, rather than just having you move from point to point and then moving the points farther apart in time. Even the process of dying and respawning has been simplified - here you turn into a ghost and have to go and find your corpse, without being penalised to a huge extent for having died as happens in some other games.
The experience curve will also be gentler - you'll probably find that you level up quicker in WoW than any other MMORPG you've played, and there's a steady train of different activities and options for you as you advance through the levels. There are level-specific quests and trainers dotted around your opening encampment, and there are of course all manner of level-specific items, weapons, monsters to battle, and places to go. That's before you consider all the possible avenues of exploration - the taxi rides, the intercontinental zeppelin travel (another magical rollercoaster tour through the game's visual panache), and the game's enormous cities, all of which have the believably vast scale of something out of the Lord of the Rings films, and are full of landmarks and hidden depths; things you remember; things you can point out to other people; and individuality and spark that you might not expect.
In some MMORPGs we've played (and we do play them to some extent, believe it or not), you can visit a location and get the impression that the designers and artists were in such a mad panic at the mountain of work they had to do that they just put down a base coat and ran away. That exasperated splatter-the-walls approach seems to be largely absent in World of Warcraft - another product of having all the chickens and eggs safely cooped up. You know, you could probably go and find them if you tried to; they'd probably look great.
Perhaps the best example though of Blizzard's ambition to encourage newcomers, and gamers who can't dedicate the 40 hours a week that some of its fans will plough into their characters, is the rest system, which gives you an experience bonus for the time you're not playing the game, meaning it's perfectly viable to play casually and still keep up with your slightly more addled friends as they surge through the higher levels.
As you start to get a grip and climb through the levels, you'll inevitably start grouping together with other adventurers. Obviously you'll find that a reasonable blend of styles and talents makes for a more effective party, but what you can do with your seemingly standard group arguably transcends some of the accepted logic of the genre. 'Instances', for example, are almost like worlds within the World of Warcraft - once you've banded together and crept beyond the blue-tinted entrance to an instance dungeon, things are different.
You won't find other players there, even if another group has just headed into the same instance ahead of you. Instead your party's adventure will be entirely self-contained, allowing you to tackle monsters and complete your quest as a group without distraction or the frustration of watching other characters camped around waiting for certain items or enemies to respawn - in games like EverQuest you could spend hours getting to a certain point and then find that another group is already camped out in the same spot. What's more, if you happen to die you won't respawn within the instance unless you're re-invited by someone else in your party - the idea is, where possible, to complete the quest in one thrust, almost Diablo-style, giving you an added sense of satisfaction for any rare items you might uncover. Of course, there are things you can do to better guard your health - having a decent healer on hand for one - but since instances are generally the culmination of a lot of smaller related quests, you'll probably be well equipped in any event.
Blizzard is very keen to avoid the sensation of grinding through the levels, and instancing is one aspect of that, but there are of course others. Raids are arguably the next step up and one of the defining aspects of the 'endgame' - the point at which players hit the highest levels and find themselves in need of something new to do. Raid content will have you grouping together in large guilds - a term that will mean a lot even to MMORPG novices - and tackling even heftier tasks. One example is opening the Dark Portal, which is a pivotal moment in the evolution of the Warcraft universe - even in a persistent world - and will be driven by a group of some 30 Warlocks banding together with all the right equipment in the right place, and entering the right raid instance and overcoming its obstacles. It's not just a switch you flick at level 60 though (the highest level in the current version of the game, although not for much longer). Blizzard is unwilling to reveal exactly what you'll need to get there, and you can assume that means it'll require plenty of subsidiary quests and specific tools that won't be simple to come by.
Killing Your Friends
Satisfying those gamers who rocket through to the end of a MMORPG's trail of content is always going to be a difficult task, as is plain even to a relative layman, which is why World of Warcraft's development has been aided to a certain extent by the team's personal, i.e. recreational involvement in other games - most notably EverQuest. Indeed, the lead designer on the game is actually privately a member of one of the biggest EQ 'uberguilds', and the team also had input from other prominent members of that community in crafting the 'endgame' aspect of WoW.
One of the products of this involvement is the game's attitude to PvP (player versus player combat), which is not yet fully implemented in the closed beta version being tested in the US, or the one which we'll shortly be getting to grips with here in Europe. PvP will be available in a similar way to instances, from an early stage, but Blizzard expects high level or even highest-level characters to get the most out of it. As you take on your enemies on the opposite side of the Alliance/Horde divide, you'll earn individual points and points that go towards your faction, and this accumulation will help you qualify for various rewards and prestige titles. A particularly malevolent Orc might become an Alliance Killer before too long, for example, while a noble and well-trained Paladin could eventually journey under the banner of Defender of the Realm.
Needless to say, taking these fellows down will do wonders for you personally, but getting to that stage yourself will carry much reward - you may be able to enter additional content specifically for certain-level PvPers, home to vendors that sell unique goods only available in that instance, and that's before you consider the gifts that come with your title. Defenders of the Realm may be awarded highly coveted weapons and armour specific to players of that rank. Seasoned kleptomaniacs should feel right at home.
Another aspect of the endgame, which Blizzard admits won't be available for the retail launch of the game, is hero content, hero abilities, hero skills - a whole other avenue of exploration for high-level players who want to try their hand at something beyond the reach of those operating at lower levels. Hero content is expected to be tied into the talent system, and should be available shortly after launch - probably at around the time players start to get to the levels where they would be able to appreciate it.
Perhaps the key to understanding why World of Warcraft is proving so popular in beta form, and tops a lot of gamers' most wanted lists, however, is nothing to do with anything we've just written. (Which, in hindsight, is a little exasperating for our half-frozen fingers.) Instead, it seems to be a similar mixture of things for most people. For a start, most people accept that World of Warcraft isn't a revolutionary MMORPG, but it's an MMORPG that makes a lot of sensible decisions, and adheres to the right conventions. Along with this, it still manages to capture the look and feel of an existing mythology with passion and expressiveness, as if the words of our dog-eared Warcraft II manuals had leapt off the page and assembled themselves polygonally in front of us. Then there's the magnificent degree of polish and forethought evident even in the beta state, from the shine of the instantly familiar menus to the logic of having rules to govern the looting of downed carcasses in group-play (the default is a round robin system); and the sense of imagination and liveliness, borne out most effectively in the various interactions and gestures each character is capable of performing.
The game lacks the much, er, 'quoted' and fondly remembered expressions of the troops in Warcraft ("What eeeeez it?"), but even though there's no Orcish "Who wants to sing?", that hasn't stopped Blizzard from injecting some of its trademark humour - it's perfectly common to wander into an area of town somewhere and find a huge group of characters dancing, like they're at some sort of otherwordly disco, and we wonder just how long it'll take most people to memorise all the various salutations. We were already /growling at cabbies on the way back from our trip to meet Blizzard on Monday.
We touched on the instantly familiar menuing system earlier, but it's the game's integration of what Warcraft fans have come to expect overall that will probably help most of Blizzard's many fans make the transition. You'll journey into Titan dig sites, you'll visit places that look exactly as you'd expect them to, and find the things you'd expect to find - and because you've never actually seen them before outside the realms of your imagination, they're fresh and new as well as comfortingly anticipated. It's this garnishing around the edges, equally prevalent in smack-your-head obvious inclusions like the postbox mail system (for sending messages, money and items) and auction houses (where an NPC takes your unwanted gear and spends 24 trying to offload it to other players, with items and cash delivered via post), that contributes more than anything to the world's sense of depth.
It's Blizzard's aim to produce the sort of MMORPG that the average gamer can find themselves getting lost in. Curmudgeonly aficionados of the genre might peer down their noses at some of the reaction to World of Warcraft, but the depth and attention to detail is understandably alluring. The transitions between zones are seamless, it looks and feels vast, but not to its detriment - and, on the most basic level, the Warcraft art style, wonderfully extended for WoW, has always been comfortable and engaging enough to capture people's attention and hook them in. It's not going to trouble Doom III in terms of technical expertise, but then neither does Paper Mario 2 - it's what you do with the material that's most important, and it doesn't take much more than wandering down the streets of Stormwind, or a few minutes on the back of a griffon admiring the scenery as you jump between locations you've explored, to be convinced that World of Warcraft has a lot to offer.
Check back later this week for more on World of Warcraft, including a chat with Blizzard's Chris Sigaty and George Wang about the forthcoming launch of the European beta, the recent stress test, and more colourful tales from California. World of Warcraft is due out on the PC in Europe in early 2005 (yes, we checked).