Blizzard Entertainment has sewn up a huge potion of the strategy market with its Warcraft series, and the keenly awaited World of Warcraft looks set to carve out a nice piece of the MMORPG scene for fans of the franchise. Set four or so years after the punishing events of Warcraft 3, World of Warcraft gives players the chance to experience the known lands of Azeroth (and beyond), in an online experience that's tailored towards ease of access and complete immersion in the game environment. With (reportedly) half a million participants in the long running pre-release public beta, and sales of over 250 thousand units in the first day of US sales, World of Warcraft might just reinvigorate an online community dominated by a small number of big titles.
The eight races include Humans, Dwarves, Night Elves, Gnomes, Orcs, Trolls, Tauren and the Undead; and players can select from nine character classes ranging from Hunters to Mages, Paladins and Warlocks. Although not as comprehensive as some similar titles, character creation in World of Warcraft is a snap, with options for gender, physical features and clothing; and the manual and cut-scenes will leave you well versed in your ancestral background. A good mix of upgradable attributes is provided, including strength, agility, stamina, intelligence and spirit (health regeneration); rounded out by secondary characteristics such as health, mana, defence and rage. Experience and level advancement is gained by killing monsters, completing quests or exploring the world.
Although player versus player fighting is very much allowed, Blizzard encourages players to tackle the environment rather than each other by providing a host of achievable quests that often turn out to be the best way to earn the experience and cash needed for upgrades and supplies. You can start questing as soon as you arrive, and keeping track of your obligations and progress is made simple by the on-screen quest log. Quests are available at just about every turn, and the game ensures that offered quests are well matched to character experience levels. Importantly, early quests are short and sharp enough to hold interest, and many of them give players the chance to vent their aggression without jumping on every other character that walks past. Combat is effective, with an excellent range of weapons and spells available, and players who level-up will be justly rewarded with some real benefits for a change.
World of Warcraft's environment is beautifully presented on screen and the control interface is well designed and implemented. On-screen information includes details on your party, a straightforward chat menu, inventory information, and various status icons. No single-player (offline) game is available, so it's straight into the deep end once you have registered, but players will be impressed with how quickly things become second nature. Most controls are mouse-driven and hotkeys are available to keep things moving. The environment is busier than most similar titles, offering a wealth of places to explore and stacks of player and non-player characters to interact with. Fast travel options, including flying creatures, boats, zeppelins and spells encourage players to keep on the move, and each of the capital cities has a unique atmosphere and some interesting surprises.
Despite the high-end presentation, lag was minimal online and we experienced no significant hiccups once we joined a server. Blizzard has worked hard to fix access problems encountered on launch and it's looking stable. Registration is simple enough (you need to provide your credit card details to access the initial free month's membership), and the minimum fee is currently US$14.95 per month.
World of Warcraft is an impressive MMORPG that adds a new dimension to the outstanding Warcraft franchise. As always, the real test of success will be determined by how many players are prepared to hand over the monthly fee, and no single player component makes it a poor investment if you give up after the 'free' trial. As MMORPG's go, however, World of Warcraft is hard to beat.