Saturday, 9 July 2011

PC: I've never played... World of Warcraft

Shamelessly pilfering the "I've never seen..." format, we at 8brit will regularly take a look at some of those classic, important games that somehow passed by. First up, we have Kieron taking a few tentative steps into the very intimidating World of Warcraft. 

World of Warcraft is a phenomenon, let there be no doubt about this. A game that launched over six years ago, is based on a pay-monthly model and still manages to have over 11 million subscribers can only be described as an overwhelming, undeniable, ineffable success. And I've never played it, well, until this week. Don't misunderstand me; I've watched the "Leeroy Jenkins" video, seen the South Park episoide, watched Avenue Q's "The Internet is for Porn" song synched with video from World of Warcraft, I'm even  vaguely aware of some poor souls across the other side of the world dying as a result of their compulsive playing. I know about World of Warcraft,I've just never played it.

I've often pondered why I never took the plunge, gave it a chance. I am a role-playing fan, I spent a large number of hours as a teenager playing text-based MUDs (too young? see here) and also played a number of jRPGs and western RPGs through the years, including the Baldur's Gate series. It's not even that I was unfamiliar with Blizzard, having also in the past over-played Starcraft and Diablo II. Really, I think two things put me off - the idea of having to pay monthly and the oft-discussed addictive nature of the game. Believe me when I say, as someone with a fairly compulsive personality, I don't need any extra encouragement to become addicted to games.

I saw the signs in others, I heard the stories. I thought - nope, I'm going to steer clear of this one, thank you very much.

So here we are, World of Warcraft has been going strong for six years and, with Blizzard having announced a new free-to-play starter edition, I decided to give it a go.


From the opening cinematic trailer for Cataclysm it became clear to me that this was a game firmly rooted in the traditional tropes of fantasy role-playing - the deep, ominous, male voice narrating the trailer made that much clear. Following the cinematic I moved on to the create-a-character screen, again not far removed from what I've experienced almost a dozen times previously. Within a few minutes I'd put together a female, human rogue named Aebrit (Eigh' brit, geddit?). I chose female for the simple reason that all the male models looked  like they spent far too much time in the gym.

Aah, two dimensional trees, how I've missed you...
Having designed my character, I entered the world. The interface is a confusing but almost comforting mish-mash of different item boxes, commands, text boxes, menu options and the like, very much in the mould of older PC games. While the graphics are clearly dated, I haven't seen those strange almost 2-dimensional trees - where they look like two pieces of paper slotted together - in quite some time, they are hugely scalable allowing the game to run on a massive range of systems. The graphics and art direction, although exaggerated and not to my taste, are quite stylised, with different objects, buildings, classes and races looking distinct and easy to identify.

Familiarising myself with the controls (a fairly straightforward WASD and mouse combination) I quickly received my first quest upon my epic journey to... oh, kill 6 wolves. Although a straightforward quest (and perhaps a faint echo of future grinds?), it was enjoyable exploring the locale, seeing other players and joining in with their battles.

And here it comes, having finished my first quest and despite the fact that I had meant to exit the game at that point I felt an odd compulsion to complete the next quest...

Journeying Onwards

So I completed the next quest which saw me kill a number of 'Blackrock Spies', met my trainer, learned a new technique and then was offered a quest called "Join the Battle!". Exhilarated I thought this must be it, an epic quest! Unfortunately it just involved killing some 'Goblin Assassins'. While I was surprised by the repetitive nature of these early quests, my interest in the game didn't wane and if anything grew as I became impatient to move onto a new area that wasn't those accursed woods.

I also killed a bunny.

Now, I'm not particularly proud of this. It was a Level 1 Critter, I was Level 3 and thought 'I wonder if I can attack this?'. Turns out I could and now its dead, when it died it made a little yelp that I think made something die inside of me.

I considered killing a dear.

The thing is after the bunny I noticed the deer, he was a Level 5 critter which seemed strange - I'd killed Goblin Assassins! I could make some kind of fiery thing happen! How could a deer be a higher level than me? Needless to say, I decided against attacking the deer.

The Black Rock Leader! Kurtok THE SLAYER! (Level 5...)

I was a bit unnerved when, having completed a few quests, none of which deviated from the usual "kill a few of this and that", I was charged with tracking and killing the leader of the invading hordes, the pleasantly named Kurtok the Slayer. I'm not an expert in military protocol but I'm not entirely certain sending a lone low-ranking recent-addition to your force out to assassinate the leader of an opposing force is considered normal procedure - especially when said leader's name is suffixed with "the Slayer".

Turns out Kurtok the Slayer was only level 5, that's right, the same level as the deer.

Herein lies the challenge in MMORPGs; in an epic fantasy world you want to experience epic fantasy adventures, such as setting out to kill an evil invading leader, but with an MMORPG there has to be significant room for character growth and space for the new player to learn the ropes. It is a difficult balancing act and can make some of the internal logic that operates in a game such as World of Warcraft difficult to digest. These risks are typical of a long-form genre in general, in comic books you find as they progress the enemies and storylines become ever-more convoluted because, to be satisfying to reader, they essentially have to trump what came before.

All told, the beginning to World of Warcraft that I experienced as a human rogue did land on the right side of that balance, for the most part insignificant enough quests to suit a rookie but significant enough to draw my interest. That said, I still can't believe Kurtok the Slayer was the same level as a deer.

The First Time I Died

Having not read up on the ins and outs of World of Warcraft, I wasn't entirely sure what happened when you died - I suspected it might have been in line with other online RPGs that I've played where you lost all your items and possibly some levels/experience. That in mind I had been cautious in my forays into the world but death comes to us all and eventually, having finally made forays into the wider world around me, it came to me.

Being dead is a bit like being alive, just more bluey/grey
I was exploring some mines searching for an infestation or some such for some bloke who told me to (you do a lot of doing what people tell you to in this game). Suddenly two of the beasties attacked me at once, both a level higher than me. I didn't last long and soon found myself dead. Luckily, being dead turned out not to be too bad at all. I just had to trek back to my corpse as a spirit and hop back in! Following this I died many more times, the games' difficulty seemingly taking a sharper upwards curve than previously. I imagine the game expects you to spend more time grinding with NPCs to raise your level on your own initiative at this point. Lesson learned! That said, dying isn't so bad when it's your 6th or 7th time.


It's a slippery slope, you start off killing rabbits and end up killing cows...
One of the big draws of MMORPGs is the social aspect. You're playing so that you can play with others, and eventually, no matter how many rabbits, deer or cows you murder, you want interact with all those other people with floating blue names that are wandering around also putting out fires, fighting wolves and killing Kartok the Slayer on their lonesome.

I tried to make a friend. Like myself, this gentleman was on his own, mindlessly attacking boar after boar. Fiddling around with the interface some I finally found an option to "Invite" the gentleman. To what I was inviting him to, I wasn't certain, but I invited him nonetheless and quickly discovered that this was one of the limitations of the World of Warcraft: Starter Edition that I was playing. I don't feel particularly aggrieved by this - with a free to play game, what are you to expect? Still, undeterred I braved a "Hello, fair traveller!" in the dialog box... and the man wandered off. I understand and know myself from previous experiences of text-based online RPGs that interacting with others is a big draw, unfortunately I found myself somewhat stumped on how to achieve this!

We only part to meet again...

It's been an interesting first foray into World of Warcraft. It still remains a somewhat alien world to me, I couldn't help but feel that I had just walked into a bar where everyone knew everyone except me. There're certain strange peculiarities to it - having dozens of individuals set out individually to attack an army doesn't seem like the most efficient management of the armed forces - but the underlying engine seems rooted in pretty standard but well-executed role-playing tropes and there is definitely a compulsive aspect to it that keeps you pushing on. I've yet to reach the Level 20 cap although I will plough on (and I will be sure to keep you informed of my progress as I do) but when I do reach that cap, I'm not confident that I'll be inspired to stump up the money to become a paying subscriber.

What left do I want to experience? Well, definitely a raid, maybe something else social?

Perhaps what I found most surprising about my to-date relatively short time with the game was that it seemed like pretty much standard role-playing fare, from the classes to the races to the kinds of stories told. Then again, this could be what makes the game so popular, it provides these well-known settings, characters and stories in a well-designed engine and interface that the player can participate in with a huge number of other players.

I know from having glanced at the "WoW Wiki" that I have barely scratched the surface of the world presented in World of Warcraft, which appears to be almost staggeringly complex to me at these early stages. For the time being, my plucky heroine Aebrit and I shall continue our journey into Azeroth, if you see us, please say hello, we could really do with some friends...

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