Review by TheSpelunker

"Like fine wine, MMORPG reviews get better with time. And really, really long, too!"

Whereas the first generation of massively multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMORPGs) included games such as Everquest and Ultima Online, we are now in the second or the third generation, where games such as World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XI will dominate and set new standards that force the older outfits to adapt. Many changes are being made to MMORPGs, which we will discuss later, that are not only making them more user-friendly, but bringing in unforeseen numbers of players to the genre. Although MMORPGs were popular before, they are now huge. The list of upcoming MMORPGs is enormous. And World of Warcraft's role in this is significant, it's almost certain that people will look back on it and say 'this game changed MMORPGs forever.' The wheel has started turning, and companies that try to deviate will probably not make it. Now, you may think that this is overly dramatic. However, given the rising production costs of an MMORPG--and oddly the increasing saturation of ones slated for launch--it probably is not. Things are changing for MMORPGs, and World of Warcraft is behind them.

With that said and given that World of Warcraft is bringing in tons of new players, it is worth going over what an MMORPG is, although certainly even a rough outline will defy one paragraph. Believe me if the the first M in the enormous MMORPG acronym could be absolved it would have been. An MMORPG is what it stands for; but though that is easy to say and justify, people that try to imagine such a series of transformations for the RPG--from single player, to multiplayer, to online, to massive--won't get far. For conciseness' sake I'll assume people know what an RPG is--a game where someone plays the role of a character, usually in a fantasy world, and kills monsters for experience till he is strong and can defeat the bad guys. An online game is not hard to imagine either, but the massive and multiplayer parts switch things some. With the number of players that play this game, it is divided into servers, each of which can easily have a ten thousand or higher population of players. Players on servers do not interact with players on other servers, but only with those on their server, cutting down on online slowdown (lag) and other things. But what happens then is interesting.

As RPGs have traditionally been single player, not of course counting the change that happened 20 years ago where the programmers actually learned how to give you multiple characters, the roles and objectives have naturally got to change. A large distinction between an MMORPG and an RPG is that you cannot beat an MMORPG. An MMORPG goes on interminably, usually in one person's case till he gets bored with it, or the developers make a very disagreeable change to the game--which can happen with so many different personalities' and people's intermixing in one world. At least in the context of the original Everquest, the second popular graphical MMORPG to be released many years ago, MMORPGs are about interacting with other players. This is still largely true in World of Warcraft, although indeed there are some shades of player interaction's fading into the background a bit behind each player's having their own safe and efficient world to play in (as I mentioned in the introduction, MMORPGs are becoming more 'user-friendly', as the term has been used). Players interact in various ways, but as with single players RPGs, getting to the maximum level is important in MMORPGs, and the most popular forms of interaction, such as raiding dungeons in groups of 5, 10, 20, or even 40 players, do not come till then, though there are intermediary 5 man raids all the way till the current maximum level of 60 (in the upcoming expansion the maximum level will be 70), which offer lesser rewards.

So people try to power-up their characters and raise levels in MMORPGs; this has not changed much from a single player RPG. But along the way, rather than a story to follow, players can collect quests in various areas of the world. Thankfully, although the game is named that, the world is not actually called Warcraft. It is divided into two continents---the Eastern Kingdoms and Kalimdor, in which there are many segmented areas, each containing monsters within roughly 10 levels of each other--with a few nasty exceptions.Usually there are settlements in these areas, where non-player characters (NPCs) may stand around with yellow punctuation hovering over their heads. Speak with them, and you get a quest. As an example of the quest you might get, the usual parody is the sort of outlandish request of some NPC to collect 15 buzzard gizzards, a couple of beetle brains, a few bat snouts--and oh, look, all of these creatures happen to be right next to camp and within my level range!--for an experience or gold reward. Parodized NPCs are also usually indecisive, too, and can't decide whether they want bird wings or turtle shells, allowing for the occasional follow-up quest. But World of Warcraft being a second generation MMORPG is a bit more sophisticated, allowing for unique and sometimes logical sorts of quests.

Leveling-up, though, is frankly filler--and I say that not in a bad way. The real difference between an MMORPG and RPG lies at the end game, where you don't win, but you strive for character improvement. Here new content is added over time, such as new raid dungeons, with tougher encounters and better equipment that drops from them. You can do other such things as fight players (prove whose gear and skill--and sometimes class selection--is the best), kill monsters for money and buy new equipment, and also participate in high-level quests and even player-versus-player battlegrounds, where the the two opposing factions in the game, horde and alliance (you can play as either) fight each other in an objective-based scenario. It's all a bit overwhelming once you reach the maximum level, especially for players that jump into the game now or worse, when the expansion is released, because the developers are constantly adding new content to the game. In summary you can do a lot of stuff once you reach the end-game of an MMORPG. In a regular RPG it is over.

This is indeed how an MMORPG works--undoubtedly an easy genre of games to pick apart or satirize since it doesn't have a clear goal. However, these customs did not start with World of Warcraft. MMORPG standards existed long before. World of Warcraft's task has perhaps not so simply been to improve these standards, and on average, largely because of their dedication, the developer's background (Blizzard, who owns the Diablo, Warcraft, and Starcraft series of games), and generally their success that has allowed for improvement of these standards, the developers are doing a good job of this. Now almost 2 years old, World of Warcraft has grown into something solid, progressing quite a bit due to added content, community representatives that collect opinions on the game's forums and occasionally revise the game based on these, and if assuming so is not unfair, a large inflow of money that the game has garnered over the years. Woohoo!

But no size fits all, especially in MMORPGs. Players banter on forums, and there are all sorts of arguments. 'Casual vs. Hardcore', 'Raid or die'. World of Warcraft's stance in the timeline of MMORPGs is as 'the casual gamer's game'. This expression can be clarified by examining one of the original MMORPGs, Everquest, where players with the most time profited hugely over those with less time. World of Warcraft's idea is a leveling out of things--making them fair for all. Admittedly a great idea, and people surely have high hopes. But it is a bit unproven. For one thing, many do not agree with its basis. As an example of something players disagree on there is a 'rest system' in the game where people gain 'rested experience' by being logged off for a while, which won't give them levels, but which when they log on again gives them doubled experience for future monster-killing. It may last for up to two levels depending how long the player was away. This is perhaps preferable to experience decay, which it can be argued is the more realistic method since adventurers don't get better by sitting on their rear, but I think most players would settle for no rest experience at all. It won't happen--rested experience has existed since World of Warcraft's launch--but this is an example of one reason why World of Warcraft is labeled as 'a casual gamer's game' on the timeline of MMORPGs--the people that play less are given bonuses that help them keep up with the people that play more.

Another reason why World of Warcraft is labeled as casual is that powering-up characters is easy to do. As a point of reference characters in Everquest took months and months to reach the maximum level. However, in World of Warcraft people claim ridiculous figures such as 10 days to reach level 60. And it's not only claims; many players have a number of level 60s that they play with. As there are multiple classes in the game--warriors, rogues, hunters, priests, warlocks, mages, druids, and hordes get shamans and alliance get paladins--this is actually beneficial too, and the line between a person's Main Character and a person's Alt Character is blurred more than in other MMORPGs. Any character that is level 60 (but not below, as in Everquest, which is another difference) can join an end-game raid, and the equipment becomes comparable as powerful bosses are defeated by each character's raid party and equipment sometimes gained for that character. Some people have multiple accounts, allowing them to play with two characters at once, and running weaker characters through lesser dungeons and getting better equipment is viable in this manner. Some people simply buy gold or characters online and do away with the formalities. The atmosphere created is generally of a more flippant nature than Everquest or other more traditional MMORPGS, and it's almost certain that players coming from older MMORPGs will have to make adjustments.

And yet even if you question the insouciant state of things, you might also question how much of all this, once player behavior, etc. is got into, rests on the shoulders of the game rather than the changing feelings of the majority of MMORPG players. I would hate to bring undue criticism onto a good game if there's no viable alternative for players with a different mindset (a question that I don't have an answer to). Perhaps World of Warcraft, or at least the growing MMORPG playerbase, will now always be prone to a greater degree of flippancy due to its increased size--which is out of hand of the particular games if they want to make money. It is true also that this easy-going atmosphere will sit well with some; a game is a game, and many people want an MMORPG to be like any other game that they have played on their consoles, without disparities in power between players or much demand placed on players to keep up. World of Warcraft sometimes treads that course, and in any case you always have a sense that the developers are looking out for whatever your point of view is, as they tend to put on good appearances in the forums and not only hot air--some changes are made based on player feedback.

Nevertheless, there are some problems. My particular pet peeve is the player vs. player (PvP) aspect of the game, which is a clear area in which the developers foster a sort of flippant attitude where--although players have a definite choice when they create their character of whether they want to play on a server with 'unrestricted' fighting between players--a player, no matter what choice he makes, or how silly his decisions are, is guaranteed what is decidedly not an unrestricted PvP environment. It was not like this originally. When World of Warcraft launched players raided towns in swarms, and the alliance and horde fought each other. Because players complained that PvP interrupted their gaming experience NPC guards in cities were put on timers; when you kill one another guard mysteriously appears from nowhere and in general you die really quickly. Civilians also get mixed up in the fray, and players suffer gross penalties to their PvP rank (this affects rewards and such that the player can earn) as a restriction for killing civilians. It isn't realistic or fun, and although on the servers where it is allowed unstaged PvP is alive till level 60, it then dies, and maximum level players prefer to duel or enter 'capture the flag' type battlegrounds, which have a queue system and offer rewards. It is not an acceptable compromise given that World of Warcraft boasted of its PvP before launching. If someone chose to play on a PvP server they should not complain when it interrupts what they're doing. However, this is a prominent trend in MMORPGs now; some players want the comforts of a single player game--for instance, avoiding PvP conflict when they don't feel like it--within a massively multiplayer game, and there are obvious conflicts with those players that really want unrestricted PvP and chose a PvP server for a reason.

My second major problem with the game is that the developers do not take a stand against cheaters. I mentioned that some people buy gold online. The developers will ban the sellers (who notoriously buy new accounts in any case, because they make such a profit), but not the buyers. This leads to further flippancy among the players as well as distrust, as anybody with money can buy status in the game. World of Warcraft also has working bots for it, which a number of high level players use to cheat their way through the game while they aren't at the keyboard. This is decidedly worse than buying gold, because the economy is then flooded with items of a certain nature--and besides, it's an inexhaustible resource, whereas one hopes people don't have unlimited money to throw at the other method of cheating, of buying gold or characters online. Competitive players that do not cheat are bound to be frustrated. Players on the fence will be pushed over. And the economy suffers the most, as things such as epic mounts (yes, you can ride horses in the game) become commonplace whereas they are supposed to be costly at their 900g price, or people with rare items can't sell the item for much because other players bought the item from a bot. The existence of cheaters is not game-wrecking, and quickly enough you will realize how little you can do regarding it. But it is disheartening.

My last major problem is something that I may have to get over if I continue playing MMORPGs (I probably won't). It seems that every game is 'instancing' now. Instancing is just another landmark in the same vein as the theme running through this review, of newer MMORPGs giving players 'pockets' within the game that can flee from the occasional troubles player interactivity brings. I like the terminology of one upcoming MMORPG, Vanguard, where the developers claim instancing "throws the baby out with the bathwater"--it does! In instances--every dungeon in World of Warcraft is an instance--there are no parties but your own. That is, various instances of the same dungeon are created, one for each party that enters the dungeon, and when you enter a dungeon you will not encounter other players--you and your party are all alone. Instances are a decent band-aid from a monetary standpoint (less staff needed to settle disputes when players share content), but a game that can adequately get by with one solid world without players effectively warping to different dimensions will always trump an instanced game. And even the notorious Everquest 2, which was still a casual gamer's game, was not as bad as World of Warcraft; instances of dungeons were only created when one 'instance' had 30 or so players in it, but it wasn't unique to every single group. I have to say, people that never play a non-instanced MMORPG will miss out on a lot. There is something special about encountering other groups of players in dungeons, and the comradery and player-enforced standards that it brings are welcome. A game that uses instances is only partly massively multiplayer--so, a PMMORPG. The lengthier acronym is only half of the punishment that they deserve!

World of Warcraft is a big game, and I honestly can't explain every detail of it in a review. There is far too much to go over, and even if I did, this review would not be on GameFAQs because they thankfully have a KB limit for their reviews. But since I enjoy the game and play it frequently I thought it would be a good idea if I covered some of things a player might ordinarily do in a day of World of Warcraft. For one thing, there is a mailbox in cities, which is like a central hub for players. At the mailbox players can send mail to me, I can send mail to them, and one of the neatest things is that I can send mail to my other characters. This last option effectively eliminates the age-old scam-bait in MMORPGs of finding someone to 'transfer' items from your one character (usually a high level) to your other, lower level character. Often the intermediary guy would just take your things and run--oops! Or you had to set your things in a 'untrodden' part of the land and log off on one character and, gee, perhaps that area wasn't so untrodden by the time you made it there with another character. The mailbox also collects items sent to you by the auction house, which is another interesting part of the game. I myself have always prefered the intrapersonal method of '/yell such and such item for sale, tell me if you want it!' but newer MMORPGs will force players to compromise in this aspect. And it isn't too bad once you get used to it, though it still reduces player interaction. All sorts of items are listed on the auction house by players, and you only need to speak to an NPC and search for them in a dialog box. Not only can players bid on the items, but there are also buy-out prices that you can set and the big spenders can grab the item right away; otherwise they must wait till the auction (and thus the bidding) ends.

With all of these items, there has to be some way to store them. This is the significance of the bank. You start with a few free spaces in your bank, but later you may buy space for bags, and different bags hold various amounts of items. You can increase your bank space and--heck--even your inventory is composed of bags. As you progress in the game you find better bags, giving you different ways of progression besides abilities and equipment. One of the greatest bags indeed: the fabled Onyxia Hide Backpack, which drops from a huge black dragon named Onyxia, is in a 40 main raid area. Granted--it may be a while before you get it, but it has 18 slots. Eventually, you may bag a level. As you raise in levels you have three skill-trees specific to your class, and by level 60 you will have distributed 51 points between the three trees. Different skill-trees emphasize different situations, such as player vs. enemy fights (PvE), PvP, and large-scale PvE, which requires different tactics than small-scale or solo PvE. At last you can for a fee have these talent points refunded and respecialize your character, though it does get pricy.

Players also have races, which can be for the alliance: human, dwarf, night elf, and gnome, and for the horde: orc, tauren, undead, and troll. Each race has unique passive and active racial abilities that differentiate them from each other. There are also wonderfully superfluous options upon creating your character that change facial appearance, hair color, hair style, etc., and this is also based on race. For example, no race but the troll has tusks, and you can change the size of these. In game your character has a number of equipment slots, such as head, ring, trinket, boots, gloves, etc., and there are nice touches here as well--you can wear different shirts (these don't affect your armor class at all), tabards, and choose whether or not to display your helm and cloak.

There is a lot of other stuff too, and I do wish that there was more room to discuss the specific classes. I will, however, say that the classes are commendably balanced, both in PvE and PvP situations. Blizzard is currently finishing up their first round of 'talent reviews', where they reviewed each class and made changes that they felt appropriate in terms of balance. The review was a nice gesture, and in turn they might expect a nice review out of me--but in good conscience I can't fully give World of Warcraft a 'nice' review. My opinion of the game is still high, and it has occupied me for a while, but then again, rhetorically, what other MMORPGs are there. At the moment they don't have much competition by any 'devoted gamer's games', if World of Warcraft is still considered as I said earlier the 'casual gamer's game.' And World of Warcraft in some ways has cornered the market through sheer perseverance and a neverending balancing act of compromises by their staff. They have the money to throw around, and they make things work in many people's favor, but perhaps not fully in anyone's. I must say it would be humbling to meet whatever shrewd businessman is behind this outfit. But the game has a repository of highlights, too, and everything does not seem like a compromise or a supplication. It has improved some on Everquest and all of the other first-generation MMORPGs. I enjoy it and still play it frequently. But when Vanguard, another MMORPG, comes around, it will meet with stiff competition from a lot of, as Vanguard calls them, 'core gamers', people that show a bit more dedication to the game than the 'casual gamer' that World of Warcraft has its eye on. If you don't understand these terms, don't worry. Just know that my main complaint, summarized, is that World of Warcraft, with instancing and various restrictions, gets away from the massively multiplayer model a bit too much, in favor of giving players the added securities and comforts of a single-player game--and you may not mind that.


Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 08/03/06


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