World of Warcraft (PC)
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My first mission wasn't hard to find. Three NPC guards at the gates of the town were continually fighting against an endless stream of yellow-eyed zombies. Kaplan took that opportunity to explain that one of the ways they're trying to keep people involved in the game is to keep areas "aesthetically pure." That means that there will be areas where NPCs like the ones I saw would automatically attack any members of another race. You wouldn't see any humans in the undead capital of The Undercity or orcs in the human city, for example -- they'd be slaughtered by every NPC that saw them. Other areas will be more open, able to accommodate any member of their side of the Alliance/Horde war. Finally, there will be free-for-all areas where anybody can go.

I asked Kaplan whether he realized that in a game where the players have total freedom to play any way they choose, that many players would take that as a challenge. Kaplan just smiled and said, "We're counting on it." In fact, it's quite easy to imagine "counting coup" scenarios where members of opposed races see how far they can get into enemy sanctuaries before they die. There will also be stealth options to sneak into protected areas, and there may even be high-level missions that send you deep into enemy territory (diplomacy, spying, and the like).

The Tauren cities have a Native American/Southwestern feel.
As it turned out, the Mindless One mission was pretty easy. Mindless Ones aren't aggressive creatures, so it was easy to pick my targets and start a-whompin' away. That was where I started to get my first taste of the interface. I was immediately impressed. The World of Warcraft interface was unbelievably compact and easy to master in just a few minutes.

The entire interface consists of seven buttons along the bottom of the screen, QuickKey and inventory slots, a mini-map in the upper right, and party and creature information in the upper left. Even better, though, was that I was never more than two clicks away from any piece of information I needed. Almost everything in the game could be moved to the QuickKey bar slots and the player gets almost 70 of them. What truly struck me, though, was that the interface was not actually particularly innovative; it was just incredibly compact, efficient, well-designed, and easy to use.

The game also gives you really good quest feedback. Every time I was on a quest and fulfilled one of its requirements, a small yellow text message would pop-up on the screen telling me how close I was to finishing. ("You have killed 8/10 Mindless Ones.") In fact, it was after my companion and I finished my first couple of quests that I first got an inkling of how good the quest and item system was.


An instancing gate in a Human mine.
After I cleared out the night spiders from the gold mine and hit level 4, PusPuss asked me why I kept running back to town while he stayed out in the wilderness killing random creatures and basically just tooling around. I told him I'd been collecting Scarlet Crusade armbands for the undead general. He asked where I got them, because he had yet to see any. It was then that I realized that I had been doing quests while he hadn't -- he'd just been following me around killing and getting minimal experience points and coins, treating the game like any other MMO. In fact, when we compared progress, I was at least a level and a half ahead of him. We had our looting scheme set on round-robin, but he hadn't been seeing any of the quest items I had.

We agreed to separate for a while and hook back up when we had both reached level 5. I used that time to do a few more random quests and explore the valley of Tirisifal Glades. That's when two other things struck me. The first was that I finally understood what one of our GameSpy Arena admins meant when he said, "I'd like to marry Blizzard's art department." World of Warcraft is gorgeous. Oh, it's not necessarily the most technologically advanced engine coming out (although it's pretty cool), but what it lacks in techno-dazzle, it more than makes up for in sheer artistry.

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