World of Warcraft exclusive - Part one - Preview
PUBLISHER/ Vivendi Universal
Part one: Interface, locations, and quests
Part two: Character
classes, mounts, pets and
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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,"
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
Expected release date TBA