WoW: A beginner's adventure
I should probably hang my head in shame, me, a seasoned gamer with twenty or so years experience behind me and I'm still yet to really have a go at this 'online gaming' malarkey. Oh sure, I've dabbled a little, I remember spending a few afternoons playing Quake 3 and the PC version of Halo online when I first got my broadband connection, but not being particularly good at either I was soon more than happy to stop spending my free time being repeatedly killed by prepubescent grammatically challenged Americans. Then when I first got one of the original Xbox's I seriously considered getting Xbox Live until I decided that having to buy a proper router and re-cabling the whole house just wasn't worth the hassle.
So, aside from those close encounters, I've managed to remain blissfully ignorant to the world of online gaming. I can offer a few excuses, if some are needed, at this point. Perhaps it's the snob within me but from my outsiders viewpoint it seems that most popular online games are played mainly by irritating school kids who laugh in the face of anyone unable to easily complete whatever game they are playing. On expert. In under ten minutes. Blindfolded. With one hand tied behind their back. There's also the far more pressing issues of both talent and time, having a life away from the keyboard or game pad isn't conducive to becoming overly gifted at any particular game especially when there is always something else new and shiny waiting to be played and frankly why I would want to venture online in my precious gaming time for repeated thrashings has, so far, remained beyond me.
However, the rise in the last few years of the MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) hasn't entirely passed me by and the idea of being able to take the traditional single player role playing experience into a world populated by other player-controlled characters certainly appeals to me more than the slew of first person shooter titles that seemed to be the online games of choice a while back ever did. The biggest of these MMORPG's is undoubtedly 'World Of Warcraft', which sees developers Blizzard take the Warcraft universe they conceived for their popular real-time strategy games and bring it to life online as a multiplayer third person role playing game. No doubt most people reading this will be familiar in some way with the game, a mind boggling eight million people worldwide are currently subscribed to the game and with the release this week of add-on pack 'The Burning Crusade' that number is set to continue to rise. Such a massive installed base means that, as well as probably making all at Blizzard very rich, in gaming circles it's pretty hard to remain untouched by the shadow of World Of Warcraft (WoW). Considering all of this it made perfect sense for WoW to come to mind recently when I decided to finally take the plunge and venture properly into the world of online gaming. What follows isn't a review in the normal sense of the word, for a start it appears next to impossible to traditionally review such games as the experience offered differs so wildly from player to player and is constantly evolving with no defined 'end' in sight, instead this is more of a story following my first steps into the world of WoW and MMORPG's.
And so it was, one chilly grey December morning, the after effects of far too much Christmas cheer limiting the chance of any kind of constructive activity taking place, that I found myself sat at my PC unwrapping a copy of WoW (I should note that the standard DVD case came inside a lovely fold out style cardboard outer box that reminded me of the good old days when game packaging used to be far more interesting than the boringly uniform DVD cases of today) and started the mammoth five disk install process. At this point reading about what happened next will be mercifully shorter than experiencing it first hand. Suffice to say the retail version of WoW is by no means the definitive article, once the lengthy install process has chugged it's way to conclusion the game needs over nine hundred meg of patches to be downloaded and installed, a process that on my less than nippy broadband connection took the best part of the rest of day meaning that by the time it had finished I had long since found something even less constructive to do with my day. So it was on another chilly grey December morning that I found myself sat at my PC with a now fully installed and patched up copy of WoW finally waiting to be played.
After the quick and simple account creation and the impressive CGI introduction I was soon creating my first character. After a quick browse through the descriptions of the different races I decided to be a Druid Night Elf whom I called Isorn, next it was time to decide how Isorn appeared physically using the character creation tool. This part of the process disappointingly isn't as massively flexible as you may expect and while this may well be de-rigour for MMORPG's it's not in the same league as something like Sims 2 which was a bit of a shame. Last but not least it was time to pick a game server to call home. However, while I understood from a technical point of view what I was doing at this point, the game didn't do a very good job of explaining any differences between the servers or which one would be best suited for new players, admittedly only a problem that new players will come across once but I did feel like I was being asked what seemed to be an important question without really knowing what effect my choice would have on the game experience. Taking Isorn's life in my hands I picked a server pretty much at random and I was now ready for the game proper to begin.
Once the narrated introduction had set the scene and the swooping camera had come to a stop behind Isorn I found myself, at last, in the game world. Once there however it didn't take me long to realise that unlike a lot of single player games released these days there was going to be no hand holding tutorial of any kind in WoW and that stood there in the stone circle I'd materialised in I really had no idea what I was doing. Of course I could have read the manual, but as an experienced games playing adult I knew that such an admission of defeat was unworthy of me so instead I used my finely honed gamers intuition and did the next most obvious thing, I clicked on a character standing close to me with a giant yellow exclamation mark floating above his head! A few clicks of the mouse later and I'd been given my first quest and along with it a sense of purpose that dispelled my initial feelings of bewilderment. As I walked away from the circle ready to embark on my quest I noticed properly for the first time the beauty of my surroundings (learning how to change the camera angle from the horrible default probably helped too) as the night elves home land of Teldrassil stretched far into the distance all around me. And so, showing the attention span of a small child loaded with E numbers, the enthusiasm for my quest was duly tempered and my desire to explore took over. As I wandered around the village I appeared to have started in I discovered plenty more characters offering quests and soon I'd accepted more of them than I could shake my Elvish staff at, thankfully the details of which were all kept nicely in my quest log. The next few hours were happily spent exploring and working through those initial quests gaining experience points (XP) as I went, and working out how the games interface worked. From what I'd read about MMORPG's before starting I knew that this initial part of the game was really serving to easy me into things and more importantly gain my character some experience to allow him to move up from the first few levels meaning that I'd not spend the next part of the game having to run away from every creature I came across on my travels. Such a process has been termed 'grinding' within the MMO community and although generally considered something of a bugbear I have to admit that, at least to start with, WoW did an admirable job of making what was essentially a lot of wandering around killing low level monsters feel a lot more structured, imbuing it with a real sense of purpose that from my admittedly inexperienced point of view made it far more fun than I'd perhaps been led to believe.
The one thing that did seem to be missing from the experience however was the actual multiplayer side of things. I could see people running around me all the time, all busy with their own quests and objectives and at the bottom of the screen I could see public chatter scrolling through but at no point did I have any need to interact with anyone or do anything that immersed me in the multiplayer aspect of the game at all. It was an interesting novelty to think that the characters running past me could have been being controlled by someone half way around the world but a novelty was all it was and soon I found myself treating the people running round me no different than I would computer controlled characters in any other game.
After a while the quests I was being given started to push me to adventure farther from home to new areas of the map, soon I had discovered other small towns and villages all with their own quests to play through and the creatures I was being asked to fight were becoming tougher and more interesting. As more of Teldrassil opened up before me I became more and more impressed with the work done by Blizzard's designers. The land felt huge and more importantly alive in a way that a lot of single player games never manage to come close to, at times I'd just stop and stare out over the forest enjoying the view. While the graphics engine WoW runs on isn't exactly pushing the polygon capabilities of more modern graphics cards to the max its lack of detail is hidden somewhat by the beautifully stylised cartoon-esque art design. The interface too has been honed to perfection, little touches like an auto run button that when turned on means you only have to control the direction of your character making the sometimes long journeys from location to location much easier and allowing you to organise your character's supplies and abilities at the same time as you travel.
Finally, just when I was beginning to wonder if I'd missed the point somewhat, I was given a quest that recommended I form a group with other players in order to complete it. Although essentially a standard find and kill quest the difference with this one was that the monster in question was considered a little too strong for my still fairly puny night elf to kill all on his lonesome. I found the monsters lair easily enough and almost as soon as I arrived on the scene I received an invitation to join a group with three other players. I agreed and we stood around waiting for our leader to tell us when to attack. At this point I realised with a slight sense of disappointment just how such quests are possible in a multiplayer world. Once the monster in question has been killed by a band of hardy adventurers he doesn't remain dead as you would expect in a single player game, instead he re-spawns a few minutes later giving the next group a chance to kill it. A 'trick' that is obviously needed to keep the quest working for all players but the effect of which is ruined when multiple groups want to do the same thing at the same time leading to a queue of groups waiting for their turn who see the monster die and re-spawn a number of times before they get their go making the whole noble quest to fell the evil beast idea feel a little more like waiting for your turn on a whack-a-rat fairground stall. Also not helping matters, the player to player interaction that I expected being part of such a group to involve was sadly lacking too. Once I'd accepted the invite into the group our leader simply told us to 'wait here' and then 'kill it' when our turn came. After the beast lay dead at our feet and we'd looted its body one by one my three accomplices left the group without another word and ran off to continue their own adventures. Hardly the pinnacle of immersive multiplayer role playing I'd been expecting but it was, to be fair, an early quest and perhaps the people I'd grouped up with were feeling just as unsure as I had been about the whole thing.
While the massive scale of the adventuring within WoW is one of its big selling points one unavoidable downside to such things is the amount of time you'll spend simply travelling from A to B. Although most quests seem to be grouped together in pockets there is still a decent amount of simply walking from objective to objective, which can get tiresome after a while even if such treks offer up the chance to kill a few more nasties along the way to help boost your XP. Later on in the game there are promises of animal mounts and transport between cities which will make getting around the wider world more manageable but won't cut out the smaller scale journeys... so be prepared.
Soon enough my travels took me to the main city in Teldrassil called Darnassus. I've no idea how it compares in size to other cities throughout the game but suffice to say walking into it for the first time and seeing the sheer size of it was very impressive and lead to a good few minutes of simply wandering around looking at things, generally playing the part of the wide eyed slack jawed tourist to a tee. During my exploring I came across a quest that offered to take me to an entirely new part of the WoW universe all I had to do was hunt down a hippogryph trainer and he would let me ride one of his charges across the sea to Darkshore. The trainer was easy to find and as my hippogryph took off and Darnassus slipped from view there was a real feeling of seeing once more the massive size of the world I was travelling through as the coastline of a large continent loomed into view ahead and my hippogryph headed for a small town on the shore.
I fulfilled the quest that had brought me to Darkshore and rather than return to Darnassus straight away I set out to explore the area a little more. It wasn't long before a whole variety of new quests began to present themselves and soon I set Isorn off into the unknown with plenty to do. The only problem was that where as back on Teldrassil I had been stronger than most of the creatures I'd been fighting, here on Darkshore I was finding it hard to stay alive long enough to get anywhere near where I was trying to get to, much less long enough to complete any of the quests and soon I grew tired of the repeated deaths being inflicted on me and headed, tail between my legs, back to the relative safety of Teldrassil with the intention of continuing the XP grind until I was strong enough to come back and survive.
Upon landing back in Darnassus I realised almost by chance that there was a whole side of the game I'd missed till now, the chance to learn a trade! Only being able to learn two at any one time the choice of trade seemed an important part of defining what sort of a character Isorn would evolve into, something organic and natural seemed to fit my elvish sensibilities and so I decided to embark on a career as a leatherworker. It made sense to be able to gather my own raw materials too so I also learnt the art of skinning animals as my second trade skill. I spent the next few hours happily wandering the forest killing anything I could skin then making the basic leather goods (once I'd finally found the strangely well hidden crafting screen) I'd been taught how to make which I then sold in the city for a tidy profit. There is a huge amount of scope for making money this way in the economics of WoW and with in-game banks, auction houses and traders I can understand how some people may get so tied up in making money that they almost stop focusing on the questing side of the game altogether. However, I lack the patience for such a lifestyle and having seen the new world across the sea I was soon once again chomping at the bit to gain the experience needed to survive there. My time spent wandering across Teldrassil on the search for things to skin had revealed a few more quests that I'd missed first time through and with a bit of work I was soon a few notches higher up the XP tree at level twelve. My last quest had seen me start down a path that would eventually lead to me developing the intriguing ability to turn myself into a bear and as the next step in that needed me to make the journey back to Darkshore now seemed a good time to try my luck at the quests over there again.
Knowing that I'd now be strong enough to survive in Darkshore and having exhausted all the quests in Teldrassil, this time when I boarded the hippogryph and made the trip I felt very much like I was leaving the relatively safe beginners area behind me and moving into the big wide world. Isorn and I had come of age and while there was much still to learn and experience we were no longer beginners and as such our journey no longer needs chronicling leaving me to draw my story to a close with some kind of conclusion about my experiences.
On a purely technical level WoW is a stunning achievement with a world so naturally designed and grand in scale that players really do feel like they are making their way in a living breathing world. Such immersion makes it very easy to see how it can become such an addictive hobby. However in some way it can also feel less like a game and more like a responsibility, by making a regular monetary commitment to the game you feel compelled to play it to obtain some kind of value for your money, much like the person who only drags themselves to the gym because they know they've already paid for it. Such a feeling is bound to increase once you get higher up the level structure and join raiding parties and guilds, even if actually playing as part of such teams would be fun it would still start to become a responsibility with scheduled in game meetings and regular commitment needed. While the typical gaming rewards of bigger weapons, more spells, increased power and more impressive things to fight all play their part I couldn't help at times feeling that unlike in a typical single player RPG, where these things were the reward for the effort put in by the player, in games like WoW these were used far more as a constantly improving carrot on a stick to make the player feel justified in paying their subscription fee month after month. The flip side of that fairly cynical coin is of course that at less per month than the price of a single budget game WoW still works out considerably cheaper for gamers who play regularly than if they were going out and buying a couple of new releases a month and spending their time on those. No doubt the social aspect of games like WoW cannot be undervalued either and that adventuring with friends does add a lot to the experience even to the degree where WoW players I've talked to login just to hang out and chat with their friends with no intention of actually playing the game in the traditional sense.
There is no doubt that I've enjoyed my time playing WoW and I know I'll continue to play it in the future. I've yet to experience a lot of what it offers and while I have neither the time or the inclination to get too involved in the guilds and raiding parties that go some way to keeping the game exciting once the quests start to dry up at the higher levels, the rest of the game is so huge that even when you feel you may have run into a wall with one character you can always create another of a different race and experience the world all over again from a different point of view. How long I will be happy to pay for the privilege may be a different thing, I suspect, much like my old gym membership, there will come a point where I can no longer provide the commitment that the subscription demands to make it worth its while but until then I'll continue to enjoy it, now if only Blizzard could make WoW reduce my waistline like the gym used to then I'd never leave!