World of Warcraft (WoW), Blizzard’s highly anticipated entry into the massively-multiplayer genre, includes all the swords, sorcery, and heroic deeds that one would expect from a game that bears the now-legendary Warcraft brand name. What good are heroes, though, without common folk for them to protect and serve? This was what I kept reminding myself as my avatar fought his way across a field of towering mechanical golems in order to retrieve… a bag of oats. Thanks to my efforts, Mrs. Fulbrow would be able to keep her ailing plough horse, Blanchy, alive for a few more days. Later, I would retrieve ingredients so that Farmer Saldean’s wife could make her famous Westfall Stew. At the end of his long day, I retired my character to a quiet village, where I guided him to a lakeside pier to spend the evening fishing. My late grandfather, who spent as much time doing the real thing, would have been baffled and probably horrified.
This persistent inclusion of the mundane is one of the more unusual aspects of WoW. Fishing is one of a number of “professions” that characters can adopt. Mining, leatherworking and cooking are among the others. Professions are optional, but characters in WoW have to fund their own adventures — either by selling the spoils of their escapades or by developing a trade. Most players pick up at least one profession — one can hold as many as four — and they hone those skills in between or during the episodic quests that characters accept in order to gain experience and advance in level.
Quests are the game’s primary avenue of storytelling. Most quests fill in a little bit of backstory of the WoW world, and the best ones drop tantalizing hints about some ominous crisis that looms over the horizon. The material aspects of the quests are straightforward: collect these, kill those, or bring item X to person Y. These requirements are just a framework for the fabric of the game’s many plotlines. I encountered many players who pleaded on the game’s chat channels for hints, tips, and shortcuts to quest payoffs, and it seemed to me that these people were missing the point. Lots of games let you kill things and rack up XP, but how many of them let you expose a web of criminal corruption within a king’s court?
If XP is all you’re after, though, WoW does not disappoint. There are plenty of quests that require players to go kill the monsters that are ravaging the countryside, but the identities of WoW‘s villains are sometimes more ambiguous. One quest requires players to seek out and eliminate the head of a shady underworld. As players peel back the layers of intrigue which separate them from their quarry, they discover that this crime boss and his organization are actually the disenfranchised former members of a stonecutters’ union, fighting City Hall for unpaid wages. “Our cause is just,” their leader shouts when he confronts his would-be assassins. Which side are we on here, anyhow?
Broadly put, the answer is either “Alliance” or “Horde”. When players create characters, they must choose a race for each one. The choice they make permanently determines which side that character is on. Dwarves, gnomes, humans, and elves are part of the Alliance. Orcs, trolls, tauren and undead fight for the Horde. There are no defections, and no exceptions.
Once aligned, players may not chat or exchange mail messages with friends who are playing on the other side. If Horde and Alliance characters are in close proximity, an artificial language barrier prevents them from speaking with one another. When an Alliance player “says” something, the Horde player will see gibberish. In this manner, the game cleaves the player populace into Us and Them, two great, wholly alienated factions who will never have a basis for communication or cooperation. The effect on player interaction can be surreal. After learning that a large group of advanced Horde players had just invaded a distant, lightly-defended Alliance outpost, one Alliance player said, without a hint of irony, “Horde players are wussies.” Nationalism has gone virtual.
For players who want to test their mettle against others without waiting for the enemy to storm through the neighborhood, there is always dueling. While dueling in other multiplayer games is usually a random, improvisational affair, Blizzard has given it a formal structure in WoW. When a challenge is issued, a flag drops from the sky, as if from the hand of some unseen celestial referee, and the other player is given the opportunity to accept or decline the challenge. If the challenge is accepted, the characters engage in non-lethal combat until one of the players taps out. I lost the only duel I accepted, but only felt badly about it until I realized that the victor had won nothing but bragging rights.
Characters can reap more tangible benefits by allying themselves with others. My first character, a human priest, found it very easy to join up with other Alliance players in order to pool resources on a quest. Priests are generally non-combat characters, and their main role in a party is to heal the fighters as they hack and slash their way through the bad guys. This makes them very popular with the swashbuckling types. I was never lacking for teammates, and the other players in the group would often assign someone to be my bodyguard before heading into particularly dangerous territory.
My time as a zombie — a female warrior zombie, no less — was lonely. Compared to the lands of the noble Alliance, which were teeming with players, the domains of the undead felt empty. I encountered a handful of fellow ghouls running around, but the populaces of undead towns on my server were dominated by computer-controlled NPCs. Maybe other Horde races are more popular; walking cadavers covered with greenish, putrefying flesh probably aren’t very appealing as avatars or alter-egos.
WoW unapologetically borrows from established idioms to help draw people into its universe. A walk down a causeway lined with 50-foot-tall hero statues is accompanied by exactly the sort of soaring orchestral music, complete with chorals, that one would expect in the wake of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy. Tolkien fans are sure to feel very much at home in this game, as evidenced by the many players I encountered who sported bastardized names like “Leggolas”, “Gandulf”, “Gimlee”, and so forth. Like those films, WoW‘s look is routinely epic, and the player is frequently reminded that they are traversing one small part of a very large online world. Getting from point A to B can be accomplished on foot, but a more efficient (and breathtaking) method is to soar to one’s destination via a variety of great flying beasts. After my first trip on the back of a mythological gryphon, I found myself paying for gryphon rides just to take in the sights. There are deserts, forests, plains, jungles and snow-covered tundra, each with their own unique, interactive flora and fauna. Just turn off the user interface for the flight and enjoy the full-screen view.
WoW is the fourth massively-multiplayer game I’ve played, and the first that has compelled me to fork over the monthly fee at the end of the trial period. If you’ve previously written off this genre as something that’s not your cup of tea, you may want to use WoW to revisit that decision. In the not-too-distant future, when computer games have ceased to be boxed products and exist solely as services, I think we may look back on this game as the title that tipped the scales.