I really don't want to write this, but I'll get to that eventually.
For a gamer of the euro persuasion, World of Warcraft exists in a peculiar limbo. No, it's not out over here. No, there's no public euro servers. No, there's no way of downloading the client online and starting to play on a whim - a phenomena which has lead to pretty much all of my peers happily burning out on City of Heroes at least four months before it's available over here. Don't expect to be able to get a European boxed copy of World of Warcraft until next year.
However, despite this, it's a game that's dominating the online discourse to a degree which borders on the oppressive. Even if we're not meant to be playing it, we're surrounded by people who won't shut up about the bloody thing. It's at times like this when becoming the 51st State doesn't actually sound like that bad an idea. Just give it to us already. Still: Copies leak across borders and it's hardly as if an online RPG is the most ping-reliant thing in the world. People are playing it, if they can be bothered waiting for the postage and/or scurvy smugglers to land shipfuls of illicit boxes on a beach somewhere on the Cornwall coast in the early morning.
The following is another of those terribly fashionable first-impression articles. Since the EverQuest 2 one was such a success - by "success" read "provoked a mixture on cheers and flames, and a long running and highly entertaining debate between intelligent and perceptive readers", it's worth trying, if only for comparison's sake. Because, make no mistake, these are the big boys of the Fantasy MMO world, and require having their hefty balls lowered into our cupped hand and being asked politely to cough.
Er... I'll lose that metaphor in the redraft, methinks [If only -Ed].
Here's the plan: As I play, I scribble down thoughts as they occur on Eurogamer's handy notepad of doom +4. These are the standout moments in the game, the stuff which I'd tell you if you sidled up to me in the street and asked me what I made of that World of Warcraft thing. The middle-ground is mostly left unexplored. In the language of the illiterate, what Rocks and Sucks.
So - First session. Standout moments?
Well, it should be noted, that the plan's already gone awry. I was only looking for a swift first prod at the world for a couple of hours. And then there's a big black space, and all of a sudden it's four in the morning, my brain's starting to fail and I haven't written a line. It all sort of integrates into a pleasurable rush...
There's the word: "integrates". World of Warcraft does its hardest to try and tie its disparate pieces together into a world. And in an MMO you really do have to try - the basic conventions of the games have a tendency to make things which on the surface appear to be reasonable (i.e. It looks like a city, so acts like a city), fall apart completely (To choose the most obvious example: infinitely respawning baddies and nobody even blinking about it). A virtually seamless world, with no load zones appearing once you're getting around. A carefully chosen level of graphical detail to present an illusion - while EverQuest 2's technology appears to offer more technical power than World of Warcraft's, its actual art design is more than a little lacking in comparison.
Of course, being a Fantasy MMO you spend the first few hours running around fighting relatively useless creatures, which I lambasted at length in the EverQuest 2 piece. Except here, if you find yourself fighting mammals, you're given a reasonable justification for it in game rather than somehow implying they're some manner of actual threat to the security of the city. For my Night Elf, the initial creatures were Boars and Wild cats and I was hunting them to keep numbers down. Less offensive animals, like Deer, aren't a threat to the player at all, and only present for hunting, skinning and other trade skills. In other words, it doesn't once decide that it can't be bothered being atmospheric and instead - for a change - being nob.
I find this sort of thing admirable.
Progression seems well judged - the sort of combinations opening up seeming effective and interesting. The best moment proves to be when I had to work through an "open" (As opposed to instanced) dungeon full of minor demon sorts, and try and angle my path so I didn't set off more enemies than I could deal with - that is, more than one. Solo play presents entirely different challenges when fighting the bads than in a team, but this was pleasurable and entertaining in a way that - say - City of Heroes instanced missions when soloing failed to be.
Oh yes. A minor memory: Playing around with the character creator and discovering the array of splendid hairstyles you can have if you play an Undead lady. If you've ever wanted to "be" the Bride of Frankenstein, this is the game you've been waiting for. Yes.
And the last thing that happens before logging off is that I hit the first city of size, at which point my jaw hits the floor and I wonder how on earth am I going to find an inn in this place so I can log off and get a resting bonus (Er... XP bonus when you start playing again). I ask a friendly passerby who's fishing and she's kind enough to reveal that I can ask the guards, ala Planescape Torment's touts.
Thank you, Blizzard. Perfect.
Second session is a short two-hour dip, as a friend of mine who's also playing messages me, asking if I want to play at Lunchtime. Who am I to refuse?
Meeting up, it immediately becomes clear that we really shouldn't have bothered. Playing with him, the split XP is so low to be pointless. He's Level 14, but the six-level gap makes it unplayable, at least in terms of real XP progress. City of Heroes' Sidekicking system - where a brevet level is gained by teaming up across large level differences, so allowing friends to play together despite different positions in the game - is sorely missed.
Better get a move on and start hunting. I have three quests in my log, one in the starting area I doubt I'll bother completing, one which involves finding a lake I haven't come across which I may go back to, and a fairly large one that requires me to toddle down a dungeon I can't do by myself. No-one else seems to be up for giving me something to get up to, so I head off there and realise there's not a chance in hell of me soloing this. Unable to find a party to assist, with even the three adventurers going around the cave system not interested in communicating. Maybe they should - watching and seeing members of their group just die through sheer rubbishness makes me vaguely glad that I'm not with them, as I'd end up crying.
This brings me to the "advertise for groups" system, which operates similarly to EverQuest 2, but without anyone really wanting to join you. I suspect this may be because I'm mainly in the newbie areas and soloing is still just about possible, but - y'know - I don't really know.
I'm still having fun, but feel as if I've reached a momentary impasse. My first dabbling with the trade skills, making a tasty cooked egg which I proceed to gobble down, acts as a heartwarming capstone to a swift gallivant around the World of Warcraft.
Log off, Level 9 and a half. Looking forward to hitting 10 and being able to get a cute pet. I want an emo rabbit called Brighteyes, because I'm terribly impractical, but fear that the game will prevent me from such moronic actions.
At which point, my notepad pretty much goes blank.
There's some scribbles to say that I didn't get Brighteyes, and instead charmed a giant spider who I called Amanda, named after the Dresden Doll's singer, because she too has hairy legs. And he ran off because I couldn't find enough food to feed him. I remember that and noted it, briefly.
Now, you must understand: I wanted to keep to the system. After all, it's far easier for me to make notes as I go along rather than thinking back and trying to draw everything into a holistic throb from the total of my experiences. But in my late night/early morning adventures around the World of Warcraft, the world presented me with two options.
One: I stop playing and spend a half-hour hammering together some notes on my experiences. Two: I play for another half-hour and write nothing.
It appears that I'm weak. Alternatively, World of Warcraft is strong.
It all comes down to something relatively simple in games theory. Or rather, games marketing, which is where I picked it up from: "Selling the Fantasy". In other words, when you pick up a game you have expectations of what you're buying into. Pick up Medal of Honour, and you want to be ground-level in Saving Private Ryan. The level which a developer satisfies that desire is, to a fair degree, a good measure of the success of a game.
It's in this area where, in the first ten hours of play or so, World of Warcraft succeeds and EverQuest 2 fails. I came wanting to be a fantasy hero, and while the latter threw me into a life-or-death encounter with a baby faun, the former lead me from one credible encounter to another, while slowly increasing my power. It placed me in a lively, fantastical world full of things to gape at, while EverQuest 2 put me in an often beautiful, but ultimately small fantasy world. While World of Warcraft has the high-pulp energy of Stormbringer-era Moorcock, EverQuest 2 feels like Renaissance Fair.
(And, to be momentarily equal-handed, like Renaissance Fair, the crafting seems much more developed in EverQuest 2)
You've probably guessed why I started the piece by saying I didn't want to write this. It's because instead of spending a couple of hours doing this, I could be continuing my adventures.
In fact, I will.
In terms of the opening arc of the game in a Fantasy Game - First impressions, remember - World of Warcraft is the one program ruling them all. This isn't really about being Newbie-friendly (though World of Warcraft really is). This is about creating a coherent experience than makes some sense and entertains rather than having this extended period being something you wade through to get to the real meat of the game.
If we're going to have trad-fantasy MMOs, then let's have them with the verve, polish and attack of World of Warcraft.