Wasn't expecting this to be a difficult review. Having Played and loved the Beta of World of Warcraft already, I was expecting this to be easy. Play some more on the Euro servers, slap a 9/10 at the end and wander down the pub in time for a swift round before closing.
The problem was that I realised I wasn't quite having the ball of a time I remembered. Something was amiss.
World of Warcraft's runaway success is simultaneously one of the bigger PC gaming stories of the last twelve months, yet no surprise to anyone at all. One of the PC big-boy developers march onto the pitch, a company whose every game is clamoured for by their fanatical fanbases, to... commercial failure? As if. It's clear that, unless they completely made some huge error of judgement, they'd sell more than a couple of copies to their kindly elderly aunts.
It's interesting in another way. Up to this point, while having the larger publisher's money behind them, massively-multiplayer games have primarily been developed by teams who have done nothing but MMOs. There are exceptions, but most MMOs have the stink of people who, on a general game design front, don't quite know what they're doing. Blizzard, more than almost anyone else who works primarily on the PC, know what they're doing. To generalise, their expertise is in sheer polish and finesse. They don't make the world's most imaginative games... but they've got a solidity which is hard to reject. The idea of an MMO being made by people who know what they're doing is especially attractive.
This is, essentially, World of Warcraft. It's not, as some have claimed, a huge step forward from the Fantasy MMO template. It's just the fantasy MMO template made accessible, made driven and made fun. It's sold because it's the old thing, but better.
However, it's worth noting that while World of Warcraft is seven-league-boot-steps ahead of most of its competition in its genre, it noticeably lacks the absolute finesse of some of Blizzards other games. To choose some examples, take a couple of quirks from my inventory. I want to pick up a bag, which slots immediately into its own task-bar. I can't, because my inventory is full. I have to drop an item (so destroying it) to make room to pick it up just for a second.
Here's another: I get a few (and only a few) quests and the description differs from the actual task in subtle, yet profound ways. Like the directions are erroneous, so sending you in the wrong direction. Or that the mission-objectives work in a counter-intuitive way, like the one where I had to slaughter a number of minions and a boss. However, while slaughtering the minions was enough, I had to actually loot an item from the head man. With all the plain slaughtering, we forgot to get the item from the big chap. By the time we remembered, the corpse had gone, so we had to wait for the chap to respawn. That we had minutes of queuing for him first time was teeth-gratingly annoying.
These are incredibly minor problems, yes. That's the point. In a Blizzard game, I'm not really used to even noticing incredibly minor problems. This shows exactly how big a challenge that they set themselves.
But why didn't I notice these niggles in my previous trip? Last time, I arrived to the game after a stay at Everquest 2, so was overjoyed to finally be in a place that made more sense. This time, I've come from a month stint in City of Heroes. Now, City of Heroes is a very different game to World of Warcraft. It's a more minor game, in terms of scope. While in World of Warcraft each of the characters and races have a different starting point which vividly renders the situation from their cod-Fantasy mythos, in City of Heroes all heroes start in the same place. While in World of Warcraft you get to develop trade skills, construct items and trade equipment, in City of Heroes you can do none of that, except the third in a cursory way. And there's no chance of ending up in a spangly skin-tight jumpsuit in World of Warcraft.
However, within its small region of effort, City of Heroes gets many things right - things which World of Warcraft barely attempts, and their absence nags terribly. The step of acquiring power in World of Warcraft, while fast compared to most MMOs, still leaves you fairly useless until the late teens, at least. Instanced content, specifically created for your quests, only opens up in the same teen period, leading to overt competition for boss spawns, especially with the game's initial crunch. Most early quests revolve simply around killing a set number of creatures of a certain type, then returning. While the game fiction in the briefings does its best to disguise its falsity, it eventually does grind you down. You're never reduced to killing rats, for example, but sometimes you feel as if you may as well be. And, at lower levels especially, having a monster spawn next to you and immediately aggro when you're already engaged in combat is the cause of most player deaths.
Most depressing for me is the teaming. I'm playing with twenty real life friends in my guild, but I've adventured with only one for a significant period when our quests crossed. Not that I haven't been in parties - when I arrive at a place which looks too dangerous, I've arranged an ad hoc group which immediately disassembles once our task is done, due to underdeveloped mission sharing. While the higher level raids are all very nice, I come to an MMO to play with people. Without one or the other sacrificing doing their missions, I can't. And with nothing analogous to City of Heroes' Side-kicking, my friends who are more than five or so levels above or below me may as well be playing different games. It's to its credit that you can Solo the majority of World of Warcraft. It's to its deficit that, sometimes, you feel as if it actively wants you to.
We've been pretty down so far, haven't we? Well, partly because the initial impression feature we wrote was so generally up. And partly because every World of Warcraft review has been a fountain, so I thought some notes of its failings may prove handy.
But this negativity can't tarnish the game too much. Its achievements are simply undeniable.
To chose some of its most obvious... The world itself. Rather than a cutting edge engine, Blizzard has used basic technology but made it beautiful through design sense and talent. The slightly cartoon edge lends the world a sense of realness which more direct aping of realty can't match. The land, rather than being divided into atmosphere-shattering load-zones, forms one smooth streaming landscape. Once you enter the world - barring trips to instanced areas - you're lulled into a continuous fantasy world. Using one of the travelling mechanisms, such as getting a taxi ride between cities on the back of a fantastical monster, is one of the single most atmospheric things I've seen in any fantasy game, let alone an MMO. The expanse of the landscape, with so many different terrains and sights to see, makes it a perfect virtual tourist destination. In a game that's about active exploration as much as knowing exactly where you're going, this is important. What's the point of finding something if it isn't worth seeing, after all? World of Warcraft understands this.
Equally, the game mechanics are carefully constructed. Each of the different character classes is interestingly designed, with even a few quirks added to the most traditional of classes to make them feel different and present alternate challenges. To choose a contentious example, the Warrior having - essentially - an inversed energy bar to everyone else's. Their Energy (or "Rage") is gathered by hitting or being hit, and fades away when not in combat. While everyone else finds themselves exhausted towards the end of a bout, a Warrior who carefully manages their Rage is still potent and ready to insert axe into some ruffian's head. It's something a little different than expected. World of Warcraft is good at little differences.
That's enough undeniable achievements for now. Where does that leave us?
Reviews are buyer's guides. To MMOGs a review's categorical nature - this mark is what this game deserves, forever - is pretty much an anathema. The mark you stick on something stays there forever, sitting on Metacritic and glowering at the world. But look at how much - say - Ultima Online changed over its existence. Is the mark reviewers gave then still valid? How about a year down the line? How about in one week when some inevitable technical problem reduced everyone's pleasure to zilch?
In a reviewer's seat, you can't let these thoughts intrude upon your consciousness too much, because - basically - you'll go mad if you do. I'm reviewing it as it would be if you went down the shops and bought a copy this second. In a couple of months, it'll have improved considerably, if only due to the mass dynamics of players altering across the maps and servers a little better.
This is the greatest fantasy MMO in existence, the absolute state of the art in orc-bashing.
But the nagging feeling I can't shake is that, for me, that's not quite enough anymore.