Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
After the success of its Warcraft real-time strategy games, Blizzard Entertainment joined the MMO market with World of Warcraft. Even before its release in 2005, the buzz around the game was incredible. Since then, three expansions have come out, but this review only covers the original World of Warcraft, often referred to as “vanilla” for reasons that escape me. Some say it’s because no expansion equals no flavour, but that seems weird, given vanilla is a flavour. Some say it’s because expansions ruined a near perfect game, but that seems equally weird, given vanilla is not a great flavour.
A direct sequel to Warcraft III, World of Warcraft tells of a war between two factions: the Alliance and the Horde. This war serves as the basis for the game’s player versus player component. It isn’t free-for-all fighting like in EverQuest. Rather, each faction is offered an exclusive class, paladin for the Alliance and shaman for the Horde, and players are forbidden to talk, trade, or group with characters from different classes, even when they’re not fighting. This seemed an interesting concept at the time, and I hoped for more differences between the two factions. However, it created a lot of drama, as each side claimed the other had the better class.
The main way to level up in World of Warcraft is through questing, the mechanics of which blew me away. I was used to questing the EverQuest way. In that game, you walk around and talk to everyone until you find someone that replies a specific word or phrase in brackets. You ask, “What [word or phrase in brackets]?” Then you grab a pen and paper, write down some cryptic instructions, and pray to God you can find said [word or phrase in brackets].
In World of Warcraft, characters who give quests have a big exclamation point above their heads. You click on them to receive your quest, which is then put in a log. This makes increasing your experience a lot more fun, especially given how easy it is to get around. Ships, zeppelins and flight paths allow you to get to your destination in minutes as opposed to hours like in EverQuest. This means you can spend more time questing, exploring, fighting: in other words, playing.
As in many other games, players looking for extra loot can venture into dungeons. The dungeons in World of Warcraft have a very streamlined design. You kill a few trash mobs (called so because they don’t drop good loot), then fight a boss mob with all the good stuff. Rinse and repeat until you’ve killed four or five bosses. If you want to kill a specific bad guy, you can enter his dungeon, knowing he’s waiting for you, instead of having to wait twenty-eight hours straight for him to show up.
Every dungeon is instanced, which means you can only interact with your group. Meanwhile, other groups may enter the same dungeon, but you can never meet them. This makes the dungeons feel empty and repetitive. I enjoy having dozens of players with me. It adds to the chaos, the unpredictability, and, above all, the sense of immersion. Instancing can sometimes stretch suspension of disbelief to its breaking point: “Oh, this is the greatest threat the kingdom has known! He has defeated armies after armies of brave warriors! We will send you and four other dudes to kill him.”
When you reach level sixty, raid content becomes available, allowing you and thirty-nine of your friends to go kill bigger and tougher mobs. These have an epic feel, like you’re facing a real threat. To enter a raid dungeon, you need to get a key or attune yourself with the raid, which places a welcome emphasis on the lore of the game. After following a long and complex series of quests, you know more about the bosses, their story, why they are a threat, why you are risking your life to kill them.
There is a big drawback to raiding though. Raid bosses drop three pieces of loot, which is difficult to share between forty people. If you want to gear up, you have to go through a lot of raids. Unfortunately, to move on to harder raids, you have to spend months doing easier ones. Even then, the gods of randomly generated loot numbers may not shine on you, and you might not get the gear you need.
If raiding is not your cup of tea, you can engage in player versus player and help your chosen faction in the war between the Alliance and the Horde. Initially, the war was limited to player-organised skirmishes, but battlegrounds were added a few patches later. Join a queue and, if enough players want to play, the battle begins. Warsong Gulch is a ten-player game of “capture the flag”. Arathi Bassin is a fifteen-player battleground with five areas. Whoever controls the most areas wins. My personal favourite, Alterac Valley, is a forty-player battleground in which you have to capture the other faction’s fortress.
In the vanilla era, these battles could last hours. I remember logging on one morning and playing a little Alterac Valley with my friends. Then we went to lunch, watched movies in the afternoon, went for dinner, and logged back on in the evening. We saw an Alterac Valley battle and decided to join it. It was not a new battle. We were welcomed back to the same battle we’d left eight hours earlier.
Still, the World of Warcraft community back then was great. The need for large groups meant you got to make a lot of friends. Reputations travelled quickly, so you couldn’t act like a jerk. Also, the war between the Alliance and the Horde helped foster a sense of unity within each faction. It was us against the evil other faction, and you had to work together to win. In addition, the developers created a server wide event to unlock the gates of Ahn’Qiraj, prompting paladins and shamans to cooperate and gather supplies for the war effort. After weeks of hard work, having hundreds of players charging towards the opening gates was such a rush! A very, very laggy rush, but a rush nonetheless.
It is very easy to look back at games with pink-coloured glasses. Many players refer to vanilla World of Warcraft as the best era. I don’t think this is accurate, as there were problems with class imbalance and gameplay. Take, for example, the class I played, the hunter, which allowed you to use pets but required a PhD in the subject to figure out which to acquire and how to train it. However, the developers listened to the fans, and many of the kinks were corrected in the first expansion, The Burning Crusade. Of course, that’s a story for another time…