World of Warcraft Preview

Beta Phase 1 & 2 Impressions

A brand new season is upon the World of Warcraft beta and it’s full of surprising changes, inevitably some of them controversial. With the recent push named “phase 2” ushered in last week, it’s fair to say World of Warcraft plays differently than it did the week before. I’m going to discuss the new features, compare them with the old, and give all gamers an overview of how the game plays in its current state, positive and negative. I’ve played nearly every class through at least level 8 (and a few of them quite a bit more – except the Hunter who of course is currently absent), so have a good feel for the game, its terrain diversity, travel, trade skills, trading, questing, grouping, and much of WoW’s appeal.

On Travel and Death

Last phase, while playing my level 7 Night Elf Warrior (who eventually made it to level 15), I decided I was going to live dangerously and travel across the ocean as a relative “newb” to the human stronghold, as I had already finished a number of quests on the Night Elves’ beautiful home turf Teldrassil and wanted to see what Blizzard was capable of in terms of terrain diversity. On an aside for those of you who don’t yet know, part of the fun of World of Warcraft will be traveling via Wyvern, Gryphon, Bat, Boat or Zeppelin flight, but to do that you first need to “discover” a new flight path by talking with the new area’s travel master. This essentially makes “hoofing it” your only mode of travel until you discover a new area, at which point you can then use the fast transport… for a small fee. And is it ever worth it. As the Gryphon movie Blizzard made public and a few screenshots here shows, you literally hop on the back of one of the beasts and take off. It doesn’t simply load the new zone, but instead you’ll fly over every type of terrain imaginable in real time to get to your destination. It’s simply beautiful and worthy of many a screenshot.

On the lengthy trip from Teldrassil in the northeastern part of the world to Azeroth in the southwest, my level 7 Night Elf first journeyed to the spacious and lavish stronghold of Darnassus, and teleported from there to Darkshore on Kalimdor, which is a level 10-20 area. Then I took a not-yet-implemented “boat” across the vast ocean to a high level area on the western shores of Khaz Modan, and promptly got killed not far from the town by a level 20+ mob. What to do? Asking around, I discovered that the only way I was going to make it anywhere at my level was to travel in Ghost Form.

The way death worked in Phase 1, if in Ghost Form you find a spirit healer in a town’s graveyard and become resurrected back to life for the xp loss, you actually come back to life at that current position. So essentially this could be exploited to travel safely in Ghost Form, simply take the xp loss wherever you wish to come back to life, and you’ll have “discovered” a new area. Not so dangerous, and not the way it now works. If in Ghost Form you now ask a spirit healer to resurrect you, you reappear at the graveyard you first appeared in when you died. No more exploit, but it was good for seeing new things last phase.

So after retrieving my corpse for no exp loss, I gratefully ran into the closest level 20 mob (short for moving object… or more simply, monster) in the deep bay, and was resurrected in Ghost Form at the nearest “graveyard”, which is simply an area close to town with a monolithic shrine and a “spirit healer” who can see you and resurrect you back to life at the shrine for a moderate xp loss. In Ghost Form, you become ethereally transparent, run about twice as fast, and cannot see other creatures including players not also in Ghost Form. So now I had fast transportation but had a VERY long swim ahead of me according to other players. They were right. It took about 30 minutes of literal swimming time while hugging the coast, to reach the shores of Westfall in Azeroth. From there I ghost-ran to the human city of Stormwind and was resurrected by the spirit healer there for a measly 650xp or so; easily worth it.

The way swimming presently works in WoW, you have a breath meter when under water and once that runs out, you die. Simple enough, but when you’re in very deep water for a length of time (under water or not), a fatigue meter appears and when that runs out, you also die. The ocean in WoW is remarkably realistic and gigantic. From the rolling ambiently-lit hills under water and plankton-like murkyness, to the sheer drops to Mariana Trench-like depths, you’ll definitely want to explore what the ocean has to offer at some point. (Some classes have breath underwater spells, and I hear Engineers get to craft an underwater breathing apparatus). At one point, I kept swimming lower and lower until my fatigue meter came up, and thanks to a glitch, did not die… but came up for air regardless because it was literally spooky that deep. And very lonely too, but I still want to see what’s down there when the game goes gold.

All Races Opened

Phase 2 re-opened the Horde races (Tauren, Orc, Troll and Undead) and made the Druid class playable too, making every race now selectable, and only the Hunter class remaining absent. Another part of WoW fun is trying a brand new race and discovering just how different their starting areas are from one another in both quests and terrain. When you begin the game as Orc or Troll, you begin in the New Mexico-like red desert of Durotar with wind-eroded cliffs all around and littered with scorpions and caves. With the Night Elf, you’ll begin in the lush night serenity of Teldrassil, a purplish forest with unimaginably tall trees, a glint of open sky above and beautiful organic structures. As a Human, you begin in a niche of the giant Elwynn Forest, full of thick mighty trees, lakes, rolling hills, farms and townships. As either Dwarf or Gnome, you begin in a small town in the icy tranquility of Dun Morogh, a forested mountainous zone with snow-covered trees, frozen lakes, mines, crevasses, and tundra. Its capital Ironforge is one of the most impressively realized cities in any game I’ve played, built deeply within a high mountain cliff complete with a snow-covered path up the giant mountain side to its gates. As a Tauren, you’ll begin in the wide open lush-green valleys of Mulgore, filled with rising mountains all around, rivers and lakes, and wide open rolling grass hills gently building up to sheer cliffs. Finally, with the Undead, you’ll start in Tirisfal Glades, a haunted dimly lit zone with creepy forests, dilapidated towns and farmsteads, and many undead creatures roaming around. Thankfully, as a Horde race, you can kill humans for your quests, which makes for a nice change of pace.

The Beauty of WoW

Perhaps the best thing this game has to offer for an explorer-type like myself is how diverse the landscapes are. The terrain diversity and sense of realism, even while being cartoony, is remarkable. From the Dun Morogh ice forests and towering dwarven mountain city of Ironforge, to the wide-open gently rising savannah of “The Barrens”…. giraffes and gazelles grazing and running past… every area and niche screams of interest. Jungles, swamps, deserts, tropic waterfalls, frozen tundra, pirate-laden coastal areas with sunken ships and coral–every type of terrain we currently have on earth is bound to make an appearance, and of course those that aren’t here are in abundance too. The orc and troll metropolis of Orgrimmar is home to circular battle houses and towers with spikes coming out, just like in Warcraft III. The city is a giant maze of natural-looking brightly-painted towers, shacks and tents, and wooden rope bridges spanning high areas. The Tauren city of Thunder Bluff rests high on a cliff, like an eagle’s nest, and to get there requires stepping on a huge mechanical wooden elevator (similar to the wood-elf village in EverQuest). The other cities were also crafted with care and are similarly diverse. It’s almost a pilgrimage just making it to one, as you’ll always start the game in one of the smaller townships far away, and will eventually learn of it through quests and/or exploration.

Questing in WoW

If there’s one thing that sets World of Warcraft apart from any other MMORPG I’ve played, it’s the huge emphasis on quests. Questing not only gives you more experience than you would get from simply killing creatures, it’s also the fastest way to level and achieve appropriate unique class-related items. You see, almost every creature in the game is designed to be related to at least one quest, usually but not always given in a nearby town. You won’t see the quest item drop of course if you’re not first given the quest, but it’s better if you sample the hostile creatures on your way to and from quests, but not stay for too long and “level” solely on creatures. For example, if you’re camping a set of razormane quillboars in Durotar for experience and haven’t yet received the quest, you’re going to end up disappointed once you find there’s a quest related to them, as with quest in tow, you’d not only get xp for the kills but a nice (or sellable) quest item and xp reward for doing the same thing. It’s like that with most of the creatures in the game.

And that’s where I bring up my first negative point. Even in the beta, many quests will require items from one specific set of mobs, and you’ll usually find half-a-dozen other people there with you trying to kill the same monster(s), which can bring the game to a scrutiatingly abrupt halt. Well, it’s not always like that, but more than a few times, there has been kill stealing going on when two different groups vie for the same creature in a sparsely populated area. Blizzard needs to fix this, as when the game goes gold and there are hundreds instead of perhaps 50-100 now in one area, attempting the same quests as other people will require that you ask to be let in a group within that same area… something I’ve often had to do. People will usually accommodate, but occasionally will just ignore you, which is extremely rude when it happens.

Last night I was in a group of 5 hunting level 18-19 quill boars in the Barrens savannah for a quest from the Crossroads far to the north. Each person was supposed to get 20 of the special quest item, which was often not found on the corpse. After a half hour of this, I held only 2 of them, mainly due to the round robin looting system where everyone gets their turn. It’s usually works great, but when the drops aren’t consistent, your turn may leave you with nothing. So our group was going this way and that, killing off quill boars as fast as they spawned while other groups were also taking their share. It was not very fun and pretty soon I left because for the experience and small amount of silver as a reward, staying for hours in that spot wasn’t worth it, and was not like the fast pace I had grown accustomed to.

One thing Blizzard has done to partially rectify camping is increase the spawn rate and number of the creatures in many areas. In the beginning area for example, you’ll find dozens of first-quest monsters to hunt, and they’ll respawn quick enough I expect even for the masses. I’ve noticed that with roaming creatures as well. The spawn rate appears much higher than in EverQuest, for example, which is nice especially when the mob is yellow, indicating that it will not go hostile on you if you approach it or kill another like it. But there is still a long way to go in balancing out all the areas and quests, as I’ve experienced camping just a bit too much for my enjoyment, which again will be exacerbated when the game releases if something is not done in the mean time.

So what is a typical quest like in WoW? I would guess that it was one of Blizzard’s main goals to have at least one quest related to virtually any spot in the whole world, making every area at least of some importance. For example, after taking my shaman to the Tauren starting area of Mulgore and completing all the quests I could find there, I suspect there isn’t a lot that I did not see in that whole zone including the named wandering mobs. Simply put, it’s going to take you a very, very long time if you want to explore the whole world and take on most of the quests. Quests can be diverse, easy to find, and are usually a lot of fun. I’ve done everything from storm a very hard mid-level human village full of “+” mobs who are much tougher than their level indicates, to several multi-part quests that get progressively harder and escalate toward an assault on the main bad guy who resides deep inside of his castle.

You’ll likely have many quests on your log at any given point, and if you travel without completing many of them, chances are you may have to even abandon some to make room for others. I also expect they’ll tweak the number you can have active at any given time, likely increasing it from what it is now. The majority of quests I’ve tackled feature the “find the group of monsters, kill them, loot them, and return with x number of their special item drop,” meaning you’ll be sent to kill several of the same type of monster to get their quest items. Fortunately, quest items typically drop from monsters fairly frequently (though the number required and the drop rate need balancing) and you usually won’t be in one area too long, especially if in a group.

Then there are the type of quests that make WoW unique. For example, as a shaman, I have a class-only quest to gain a new totem (which is an area effect buff) at level 10. It requires that I first journey to a new area to find the right trainer, who then sends me to find a “hidden trail” up a specific mountain to its peak. It’s not really very hard to find, but on any given day expect to see several “where is the hidden trail?” questions in the general channel. So I embark up the mountain at the appropriate spot and it is a thin, windy steep trail I probably would not have explored otherwise. When I got to the top, there was an absolute magnificent 360 degree view of all the surrounding areas. I could see the newbie area when you first enter the world, and almost all the other areas of Durotar and a sizeable chunk of the Barrens from that one vantage point. At the top, I was assigned another fetch & kill quest, and when I returned I was assigned to drink a potion enabling me to “see” a special flame elemental that only those who have completed the previous quests could see, and right at the peak of the mountain I was assigned to defeat it in combat, ala Gandalf in the LotR:FotR book (not movie). Unfortunately I died in combat, but after gathering another two people, we were successful.

When you begin the game with a new character, you’ll always be close to a quest giver, indicated by the yellow exclamation point above their head. This gets even casual players a head start in the game. Help text has been implemented in this phase, so you’ll often see a question bubble blink in and out of transparency on the bottom middle of the screen, and when clicked will provide the help. After you complete the half-dozen or so quests in your starting area, one of the NPC’s will inevitably give you one that leads you to a new area just outside the starting one, encouraging you to explore. You can of course travel at will anywhere, but if you die, I’ve explained the consequences above.

Character Progression, the New Skills & Talent System

Beginning at level 4, which can be attained in as little as half an hour or less, your character will be able to purchase new abilities from their class trainer every two levels. These new abilities are one of the things that will keep players addicted, as it’s quite fun to drop what you’re doing and seek out your trainer to see what’s new. As it is now and I expect will be through release, if you spend your money on weapons or armor at merchants, you will probably not have enough left over to buy all your abilities when they become available. The abilities not only become extremely expensive, but make each character class fun to play and unique. A minor gripe I have is that with only 8 character classes, I find myself missing the diversity that you’d get in, say, EverQuest. The mage, for example, is the direct damage nuker, and because I played mainly a wizard in EQ, I find the mage in WoW comparatively lacking in the diversity that the wizard had in EQ, and I hope that they implement a little more for the classes to be able to distinguish themselves.

Other classes have generally more going for them, though in this recent phase, many testers are upset about the “nerfs” to the Paladin and Rogue. In fact, Blizzard reworked the damage system, which helped make the monsters slightly tougher to defeat in this phase, and therefore combined with a steeper xp curve, gaining levels happens at a slightly slower pace, regardless of the new resting system that I’ll mention later. I still find the pace to be adequate however, but the game did seem faster last push, and that was something I thoroughly enjoyed.

Another changed element in this phase is the new skill system. When you leveled before, you gained a specific amount of “Talent Points” that could be applied to any one of your primary abilities such as strength and stamina, or special talents such as magic resistance or fire specialization. Skill points were gained every level and you used them to upgrade your trade skills, such as Enchanting, Blacksmithing or Herbalism. As it is now, as you defeat more creatures in combat, you gain “skill points” that can be applied to both your primary attributes and to buy trade skills with. It’s my personal opinion that having to choose between trade skills which can cost a lot to begin with and upgrading my primary skills or buying new proficiencies, it makes me want to hold on to them, and thus not increase my character at all or only in small slices. That said, I was able to max out my abilities with my phase 2 level 14 Shaman with a few skill points left over. Since the whole skill and talent system is still being severely tweaked and re-implemented and will no doubt change, I’ll leave any further discussion of it to a later article.

The New “Rest” System

In a controversial move, Blizzard has implemented a brand new system in phase 2, which is mainly in order to shrink the gap between the powergamer and casual player. At first, the vocal majority of players (which doesn’t necessarily mean the actual majority) felt the system was flawed, and that a new one should take its place. What happened was this: you began the game “well rested,” and each kill netted you a bonus 200% of normal experience for the kill. After a short number of hours of play, you simply became “rested” and gained 150% of the normal experience per kill. Upon further play, you only received the normal 100% experience, and subsequently, two more rest states: “fatigued” which netted you 50% and “exhausted, which netted you 25%.

Here’s the controversial part: the only way to become “well rested” again was to take your character to an Inn located in most of the towns, and literally log out of the game for up to 8 hours. You can of course play other characters in the mean time, but that character will only regain their rest state by being out of the game. While this may not have been a problem for the casual gamer, the vocal powergamers found it an intrusive idea to their freedom, virtually “forcing” them out of the game while they rest. Quest experience did not count toward the bonus, so quests and trade skills may of course be used with no penalty, but often quests revolve around killing creatures, and so they would still be penalized.

The system still works that way for now, but fortunately in a recent post by a Blizzard employee, the rest system is already due for a severe tweaking. No longer will you be required to find an Inn, but if outside of one when you log, you’ll receive less of a rest bonus. If you do log out, even for an hour, it will now count as rest, and if you rest for longer than 8 hours, you will have a surplus and it will take longer for you to drop down in rest status. Finally, it will (when it becomes live) be based on level, so the higher level your character is, the more experience you’ll be able to gain until you drop down to “rested” and subsequent tiers. As I wrote this article just before the rest system post by Blizzard, I had a paragraph full of suggestions but they have addressed most of my concerns and so I’ll forego most. I still feel that they could add a “camp making” ability to the Survivalism trade skill, and that players who log out in a camp will feel better rested than if they didn’t. Alchemists could also be able to find a “rest potion” recipe that would give a player an increase to their rest state… ranging in power as their ability in Alchemy grows. Expect the system to change even further before the game ships.

As a practical bonus to the new rest system and something which everyone seems to enjoy, when you talk to an Innkeeper for the first time you are given a “hearthstone.” It’s an instant town portal spell which you can use once per hour to teleport yourself safely back to the Inn. Every time you find an Innkeeper, you’re able to “bind” to that location by asking them for a place to rest. This sets the particular Inn as your current home spot. Since the hearthstone has a long cast time, it won’t be useful in combat, but when you need to get back to the Inn you last called your home, it’s a wonderful way to expedite the process.

Trade Skills

With the little time I’ve spent working on trade skills (tailoring, leathercrafting, skinning, herbalism and enchanting), and from talking with others online, WoW seems at first glance to nail down the trade skills correctly. Not only will there apparently be secret trade skills, but each of standard ones such as Enchanting and Tailoring depend on items that are farmed from other trade skills. For example, Enchanting requires herbs found using the Herbalism skill, and Blacksmithing requires ore which can be picked up using the Mining skill. What this means is that you’ll likely be interacting with other characters and exchanging items and helping to stimulate the trade skill economy. If you have a high Herbalism skill, you can make a lot of coin by fetching rare roots and plants and then selling them to Alchemists or Enchanters. You can of course pick up both dependent trade skills, but that may stretch your time too thin, and so the option is there for you to trade for your required items.

Best of all, the skills are easy to use, never fail, and are fun to do, encouraging you to explore the world in search of the rarer items. All crafting trade skills require “recipes” for the item to be made or enchanted. Many can be bought at the trainer for a moderate price but there are a large number of recipes that will drop randomly from monsters as well, and can then be traded to the appropriate player.

The Crux

So, in its current state, is the game fun? The game is surprisingly polished and so far I’ve had a lot of fun. WoW “feels” different from the other MMORPG’s I’ve tried but I have difficulty in pinning down exactly why. It has a faster pace to it (which was more evident last phase unfortunately but I’m sure will be nearly perfected by release) and there seems to be something to do, finally, if you can only log in for half an hour, due to the extreme number of quests and leisure trade activities. Perhaps it’s the beauty of the world that lends the game such a unique quality. It’s got that characteristic Blizzard spectrum of cartoony vibrant colors–especially found in Warcraft III–and the realistic landscapes are full of diversity and organic uniqueness. It features a novel travel system that is a blast to use (with personal mounts available at high levels). Its quests are for the most part very fun but saddled with the aforementioned potential camping problem, and the ability to play Horde vs. Alliance is a feature that is going to be well-liked by all. With all the addictive elements I’ve discovered about the game, there is still a lot more I haven’t figured out or tried: PvP, high-level gaming, most of the dungeons (which are said to be fantastic), and several of the high level zones… though I did venture into a couple and was killed almost immediately. I’m looking forward to further participating in the beta and seeing how the game unfolds. For any of you who are wondering if the game is worth it, especially if you’re currently playing another kind… it is a very satisfying world rich with life and things to do. Blizzard is known for fine tuning their games well past release, and I expect it will be the same with World of Warcraft. Hopefully its longetivity will prove as satisfying to others as the brief amount of time I’ve spent in it has been. Even in its current state, it’s a game well worth waiting for.

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