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World of Warcraft exclusive - Part one - Preview
REVIEWER/Steve Hildrew
PUBLISHER/ Vivendi Universal

Part one: Interface, locations, and quests
Part two: Character classes, mounts, pets and skills
Part three: Groups, raids and player-versus-player

The online world overflows with massively multiplayer RPGs. We know this. Every fan of the genre knows this. Half of them will never arrive, the other half might sputter to release, but how many will make it? Does anyone really know? Most people are so scared of change, they potter around in new worlds, then give a frightened chirp, and flutter back to the warm and snug bosom that is EverQuest. After all, most of the new worlds bear more than a passing resemblance to the lumbering uber-world, why play an imitation?

It's a difficult environment, and one you wouldn't want to venture into without a) a huge wad of cash, or b) more confidence than you'd be sane to encompass. When asked at a conference what he'd do differently if he were to make Ultima Online again, producer Gordon Walton once replied, "I'd rather take ten million dollars, put it in a pile right here, and burn it." So who does it take to grasp a challenge like that? Who has the talent, the drive, and more importantly, the trust of gazillions of fans to make a massively multiplayer world really work? You'd certainly do worse than stopping at the door of Blizzard Interactive.

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Welcome to Blizzard, home of... merchandising?

Which is convenient, because that's exactly what we did. Enduring the torment of an economy class transatlantic flight (they had F-Zero in the in-flight entertainment - result!), we found ourselves dazed and more than a little sunburnt in California, blinking into the sun as we cast our eyes over the plain cube that makes up Blizzard's headquarters. Could this really be the home of the talents that brought us Warcraft and Diablo? Shurely shome mistake?

Not so. Stepping inside brings you face to face with an array of gruesome banners, mildly out of place for a harmless business park attached to the local university. That's unless higher education has decided that human skulls, tattered black cloth and rampaging orcs are suddenly required subjects. The next room gives you cabinet after cabinet of glorious shiny Blizzard merchandise. It's enough to make your eyes explode. Our attempts to steal it, unfortunately, failed utterly, to our everlasting regret.

After a short tour of the Blizzard facilities -- "can we take a photo of that? How about that? Can we... no, ok. What about..? Right, ok, sorry." -- we settle into their highly plush viewing room - half a dozen lose-yourself-in-their-cushions black leather sofas facing an enormous viewing screen that takes up an entire wall. We're met by team lead Shane Dabiri, creative director Chris Metzer, and lead designer Allen Adham, who also happens to be Blizzard's vice president. Introductions are made, and everyone holds their breath as World of Warcraft boots up on the massive screen. We've travelled a long way to see this, and damn, we're excited.

Allen Adham strikes a pose.

When Blizzard announced it was stepping into the massively multiplayer arena, the online world resounded with a million fans screaming, "YES!", and a hundred (or so) developers screaming, "NOO!" When Blizzard decides to do something, it does it right, and that isn't going to stop just because the rivals are satisfied with buggy releases, clunky interfaces, and relentless unsatisfying gameplay.

Adham smiled when asked about other MMORPGs. "We looked at the games out there, and we were just amazed. Why, just because they're online, do these games have to forget so many of the basic rules of good game design? We're designing World of Warcraft around the principles of good one-player RPGs." It's something that starts from the ground up. Even the interface is designed around the good gameplay principles that Blizzard has ingrained into every project to date.

Said interface is simple, easy to use, and unobtrusive, even in its current beta state. In some online games at the moment, the interface takes up almost half the screen - a ludicrous situation: not everyone has a 1600x1200 monitor. Your chosen abilities are listed in a line along the bottom of the screen, a simple life and mana bar at the top left, and mini-map showing landscape, monsters, group-mates and other points of interest close-by at the top right of the screen. Menus for skills and inventory can be accessed through the bottom bar or simple key presses. Other menus -- quests, for example -- are context sensitive, and pop up when you need them - usually by interacting with the appropriate NPC by right-clicking the mouse.

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The approach also extends to everyday gameplay. "Even chests," smiles Adham. "What's an RPG without chests, barrels and bushes to loot, right? We have those." What's clear is that Blizzard is going to do its utmost to make playing World of Warcraft both familiar to RPG players, and also deep enough to entice you constantly onwards. As Dabiri chips in, "Things don't need to be complicated to be strategically deep."

The main focus seems to be making each individual player feel important. "From the moment you start playing, we want you to feel like a hero," says Adham. For example, from your starting village, you'll be given quests that lead you to your first micro-dungeon. These dungeons litter the landscape, breaking it up into manageable chunks, and there's over 100 of them in total. The quest sequence then leads you to your first small town, where you can complete quests that eventually lead you to the big city, and onwards into the more dangerous full dungeons.

Our tour of the game began by running us through various area around the game. The cinematic trailer for World of Warcraft hasn't been long on the web, with its vistas of scenery and large-scale battles. "One of the questions we got asked the most when we released the trailer was, 'Is that real?' And yes, everything in that trailer is one hundred per cent real-time," said Adham. To prove it, he started us off controlling Brittany, a human mage character at the vast waterfalls in the game's wetlands. Exploring the game from the third-person perspective, we gawped at the meeting area for five giant streams of water, noticing for the first time just how enormous the game's draw distance was. Ok, so it was running on a beast of a machine, with dual Intel 2.7gig processors, 1280MB RAM and a GeForce4 4200 graphics card, and at 800x600 resolution to boot, but all the same, the engine clearly had some meat behind it.

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The tour continued through a number of the game's frankly breathtaking environments, all consistent with the Warcraft universe. The geography is just one of the things in the game that will be totally in keeping with the other games in the series - places, battles, and history. You'll have to search hard to find any flaws. And variety is the name of the game where scenery is concerned. From the Wetlands, we visited an underwater fighting area in the shape of a sunken ship, populated by drowned sailors; a huge arena set in the humid Stranglethorn Jungle: one of the game's player-versus-player combat areas (more on that later); the enormous and mind-boggling lava-lit Black Rock Spire, a volcano created by a crazed wizard that straddles the human and dwarven realms - some might recognise it as the evil dwarf base from Warcraft2; and the human city of Stormwind, set in the deep and relatively safe Elwynn Forest region.

Cities are intended as central gathering points for players in-game, once they've worked past the sets of quests and adventures that lead them there. As well as a place to buy and sell, craft your items, train at your guilds and buy high end spell and potion reagents, cities are also centres for adventuring. Not only can quests be given in cities, adventures take place in them, around them and under them. As players progress, they'll be expected to progress to the more dangerous areas - Blackrock Spire being a foremost example of a large epic dungeon. "We expect a time of three to four hours to reach the bottom of one of the main dungeons with a group," explained Adham.

Quests are the means by which you will be guided to areas that are appropriate for your level. Interacting with quest creatures will pop up a menu, with a list of available quests and their possible rewards. Again, a simple innovation for the genre: not only will you be able to see your quest reward before doing the quest (without resorting to a website, that is), but you can also choose from multiple rewards, sensitive to your character.

On to part two for character classes, mounts, pets and skills!

Expected release date TBA

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