World of Warcraft
World of Warcraft didn't invent the online role-playing genre, but it certainly benefits from the missteps of other titles that have come before. A mind-boggling array of improvements in graphics, gameplay, networking, and interface -- really every category -- makes this game the crown prince of the genre, a great starting place for newbies, and a challenge to any other MMORPG currently in the works.
A History of Conflict
World of Warcraft takes place just four years after the real-time strategy Warcraft series, which chronicles a 25 year struggle between the Alliance (humans, dwarves, gnomes, and elves) and the Horde (orcs, tauren, trolls, and undead). Even though there's tons of accumulated story to the series, new players should not be daunted. The background is there for you to explore, but you don't have to tread a lot of Azeroth history to get into the action.
The game looks magnificent. There's plenty of detail and variety to the landscapes and interiors, and the artwork has a refreshingly playful style. There's not a lot of variety in the character creation process, but with all the skills and proficiencies to combine in the game, World of Warcraft focuses its customisation not on the appearance of your character but rather on the character of your character. The game lets you adopt any two trade skills, regardless of character race or class, and combine those skills in useful ways. If you choose skinning and leatherworking, for example, you can fashion bags from the carcasses of monsters you defeat, which will allow you to carry even more inventory items.
You can sell the items you make, find, and loot through a variety of outlets. Like any role-playing game, World of Warcraft has merchants who will buy your cast-off items for fixed prices, but you can also sell to other players at your own price through in-game chat or by leaving it with one of the auction houses located across the map. This virtual free market is a game within the game, like Monopoly somehow inserted into the middle of Chess. You can even send items C.O.D. to other players via the game's mail system.
In other online role-playing games, starting players have to invest dozens of hours whacking at small prey and doing other odd jobs one at a time to gradually "level up" to more interesting challenges. World of Warcraft lets players accept a variety of quests -- up to 20 at a time without penalty for abandoning any of them before they're complete. The makers boast 2,000 existing quests with more being added, many of them noncombat in nature. Where some games only grant experience through battle, World of Warcraft grants experience for exploring and fulfilling quests too.
A Level Playing Field
There's also a built-in handicap for casual players where your character enters a rest state when you log off from the game. The longer you're logged off (up to a week), the bigger the experience bonus you'll get when you return to battle. An enemy tagging feature -- the player who lands the first attack on an enemy claims the loot for himself or his party -- prevents onlookers from swooping in and pilfering items from a monster that you brought down. That resolves a common complaint of other titles.
Most games severely penalise players when they die in-game, usually by shaving experience points, funds, or both. In World of Warcraft, death just relocates your ghost to the nearest graveyard, and the only penalty is the time it takes you to get back to resurrect your character's corpse.
All of this makes for a very complicated game, but the well-designed interface puts all the game's elements into icons either visible framing the action or within a simple keystroke. The enemy's artificial intelligence is quite strong too: Monsters will join nearby fights to aid their comrades, switch targets strategically mid-battle, and ambush players. The map system fills in details on places you've visited, so you always know where you are and where you've been.
Overall, World of Warcraft is a game that's easy to learn, challenging to master, beautiful to watch, and tons of fun to play. --Porter B. Hall
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