World of Warcraft (WoW if you’re lazy) isn’t exactly an unknown product. Mr. T pitches it in primetime. Millions of people have created accounts and play on it every day since it’s launch in November 2004. Until a couple of weeks ago, I wasn’t one of them.
My avoidance of WoW was based principally on two things one being that I love deep role-playing games and often get caught up in them, devoting hours and hours to their conquering and the other being that I’m married and I like being married. Presented with a game that offered what some might suggest is the epitome of the former I feared for the fate of the latter should I ever involve myself in a game like this. There are other secondary factors, such as my general distaste for wasted expenses so a game that carried a monthly fee would demand to be played often to maintain its relative value. It was just a safer course to steer clear.
But then a couple of weeks ago I went ahead and signed up for the 10-day trial, and after receiving a little money for my birthday, I bought a copy of the boxed game. What changed was simply this: I realized that relatively speaking I have spent much greater amounts of money on less entertainment value and the only thing keeping me from possibly enjoying a good game was the irrational notion that the product itself was capable of some sort of nefarious assault on my sense of responsibility and reason. After the $60 spent on Fallout 3 which was a decent game, a game I might describe as being good, I spent about two weeks playing it before putting it down and putting the odds of re-visitation at about 1 in 16. The entertainment to expense ratio there is high. Determining that it was myself who had to take responsibility for my actions regarding balancing hobbies and pastimes with family and life obligations made it easier to decide that no game can ever be at fault if my wife is unhappy because I’m too busy playing games to spend time with her. Ultimately if I can’t keep it together with this game I’m at risk for not keeping it together with any game. My wife is wonderfully patient and understanding about my silly, juvenile hobbies but if I ever push the limits I would need to scale back the entire activity and not blame it on one specific element.
Also, I have an exit strategy.
So. Anyway. The game. The interesting thing about WoW is that, as a sort of role-playing enthusiast, the game has some elements that I really like but I can’t say it’s the best RPG I’ve ever played. What I do like about it is the sense of artistic style that has been meticulously applied to everything. I’m not a huge fan of the Blizzard house style, but its consistency helps to build the world and that’s pretty pivotal to a game like this. Also, as probably most role-players would, I appreciate it’s depth and scale. I have little to compare this game to since the only other MMO I’ve spent any time with is Eve Online and it’s, you know, space so it’s bound to feel gigantic. But I’ve played console and standalone PC games set in space and gotten similar senses of scale, what I haven’t had before is the sense of what they really mean when they say Massively Multiplayer. The starting area is big enough that it feels like a decent sized chunk of the best game I have to compare it to, Oblivion. You step beyond that and realize that the first demarcated area (I guess they’re called Zones) is probably a third of the size of Oblivion’s world. There are probably 15 of these zones. On one of the three contents.
And it isn’t just the map that’s big. The skill trees are expansive. The item lists are ridiculous. The number of quests available is dizzying and on and on. I keep comparing it to Oblivion because I’m familiar with that game and until I tried WoW it was the most expansive game world I’d ever encountered. It’s interesting to me that Blizzard didn’t really try to hide this expansiveness: Compared to Eve, for example, you spend a lot of time in WoW traveling from place to place. Early in the game you have two options: Hoof it where you need to go or, if you want to go home, use your Hearthstone which once per hour can pull you back to your designated home base. Walking speed isn’t painfully slow or anything but it’s certainly time consuming to trek from one end of the zone to the other during fetch quests. Later it appears you can grab speed-boosting mounts and I recently achieved the point where I can use a for-pay service to fly you from one visited spot to another. Even in Eve which has you traversing long stretches of space in something approximating real time you can set destinations and engage autopilot. But to a guy who is used to fast travel in Oblivion or even the uninterrupted travel options of games like Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest, it’s strange.
So far 98% of my time has been soloing, which is basically playing WoW as if it were a standalone single player RPG. As this type of game, it’s perfectly enjoyable. However, I have encountered my first dungeon which is designed for multiple players and herein lies a bit of the problem. Generally speaking I’m not a huge multiplayer gamer, while I do love cooperative games, I’ve had a lot of bad experiences trying to play with strangers so I avoid versus modes and tend to wait until the rare occasion when I have a friend in the same place and time to do any kind of multiplayer gaming. Being late to the WoW party, most people I know who play the game are unlikely to want to fiddle around in a low-level dungeon helping me get through it and my other option is the undesireable prospect of finding similarly-leveled strangers to join up with. Thus far I’ve merely avoided the problem and moved on to other activities but I do wonder if I’m missing a key element of the game by doing this. On the other hand, these types of dungeons sound like they require a certain level of knowledge and practice to execute that I most definitely do not possess.
What kind of amazes me about the game and in fact highlights my largest complaints thus far is that even with the depth and breadth of content is how rote most of the actual gameplay remains. The diversity of the quests in their integration is wide but their actual classification is the same as almost any other game: Fetch, destroy, delivery, hunt. That they separated out the dungeon dive into a different class of quest isn’t really significant in my estimation. When you get to combat is basically a hybrid of Diablo and Warcraft: Select the unit you want to attack and then use your powers, which have a cooldown period typically, in the most effective order. It’s not unenjoyable by any stretch but somehow it feels a bit discordant to have such a rich experience punctuated repeatedly by a simplistic core mechanic.
The whole dynamic of the game is fascinating in its design: The foundation of it is light, almost casual. Sure there is a particular intensity to the game’s volume but because the class restrictions limit your exposure to that mass unless you want to know about that which doesn’t apply to you, it’s easy to burrow your vision into a tunnel. You can play with a series of simple solo missions for a very long time and have fun doing so. However the developers seem keen to have incorporated a higher level game that is almost a different beast entirely into it so that the hardcore crowd that is willing and ready to devote endless hours to the game can have something of their own. What I don’t know is how smooth they’ve made the transition so people who enter the game just checking it out can ease their way into that richer experience. Depending on who you talk to, they may have made it silky smooth.
This is mostly irrelevant to me, I think. I don’t have any plans to extend my subscription beyond the initial one-month offering included in the boxed game. That doesn’t mean I won’t at some point return to the game, but now that I’ve broken the seal, so to speak, I’m inclined to try some other genre offerings rather than settle on the first one I try. Hey, at $20 for a month of play it’s practically a bargain from the $60 next-gen 14 hour “experiences” I’ve been focusing on. I’m thinking next month I may use the last of my birthday cash to try the newly released City of Heroes Mac port. Curiously enough the thing keeping me most from latching onto World of Warcraft as my game is that the setting and world are derivative of a property that I don’t have a ton of interest in to begin with. Frankly I like Tolkien and Dungeons and Dragons well enough but I’ve never been as drawn to fantasy as a foundation as I am to futuristic/SF settings and Warhammer (anyone who says Blizzard hasn’t borrowed liberally from Games Workshop is delusional) is something I’ve zero inclination toward. Now, if Bilzzard ever released World of Starcraft… well, best not to dwell on that too much.