Monday, February 21, 2005

Byte: WoW, man. War(craft). I mean, WoW.

I once swore that I'd never play online games. Well, that oath was initially broken when I acquired Broadband last year, and this weekend, I committed the ultimate violation, tearing that promise asunder and casting it aside onto a well populated pile of misguided decisions.

Blame my friend Sascha. There's nothing more subversive than a German MMORPG player.

Yes, I've become an orc-bashing level grinder. Actually, that's doing a disservice to World Of Warcraft, because it's a tad more sophisticated than that. Not much more sophisticated, but enough to persuade me into trying an MMORPG for the first time, and taking the monthly hit for the subscription fees.

I've gone for the gratuitous ears of a female Night Elf Druid on the new Zenedar PvP server. I'm playing under the name of Shareth, named for Shareth The Heartstealer, the evil daughter of Doomdark (from The Lords Of Midnight) who you had to fight in Doomdark's Revenge. I figure it's a suitably prosaic name for anyone under 25 not to recognise it, and is suitably fantasy-elvish enough for my character. I chose the Druid class, because I quite like the thought of being able to shapechange at higher levels, plus you get access to a load of nice Nature Spells, such as Healing Touch, Entangling Roots (which holds enemies in place) and Mark Of The Wild (which boosts your Armour rating). I've played it for a couple of evenings - probably about 4-6 hours, and I'm already at Level 9 (out of 60, so a long way to go yet), but it's a pretty impressive level rate.

Unlike other MMORPGs where it's simply a monster grind to gain experience, World Of Warcraft implements a proper Quest system, which allows you to accumulate experience more quickly than simply bashing monsters, plus gives you more concrete rewards, such as cash, weapons, armour or other valuable items. The low-level quests aren't particularly imaginitive - deliver this, fetch that, bring me so many of those - but it's more rewarding than monster-bashing. I'm reliably informed that once you hit level 20 or thereabouts, the quests get much more interesting.

The interface is kept nice and simple - so simple the box proclaims you might never need read the manual - which is true to a point, though the finer nuances really do require you to get stuck into the rather hefty tome provided in the double-sized DVD case. The game runs beautifully on my Athlon 64 system, and even though I've only got 512MB broadband, I haven't had any problems yet with lag. Blizzard have sensibly decided to drop the polycount and simply make the game LOOK GOOD. There are sharp edges everywhere, and the textures aren't all they might be, but you don't really care, since the level design is spectacular, and there's a coherent aesthetic that ties everything together. The Night Elf capital, Darnassus, is right out of Tolkein; you're half expecting to bump into Cate Blanchett or Hugo Weaving as you're climbing up into the trees. Giant treants patrol the city gates, and the city guard wait patiently in grand, columned halls. The graphics have a cartoony look, not unlike Beyond Good & Evil, and it's achingly pretty at times.

It's still early days, but there are plenty of ex-Beta testers around to help people out the newbies, and even the lowly populated servers like Zenedar still have plenty of people with whom you can form parties. I hooked up with a Night Elf Hunter called Rendar last night, and we had a pretty good time - Rendar using his ranged weapons, and me pitching in with spells, buffs and the odd bit of melee. I've found that Druids are quite popular with lummox warrior classes, because of their ability to buff up party members and their powerful healing spells don't go amiss, either. Rendar was a few levels above me, so he was on a much more difficult quest than I could handle - so when he goes in to sort out Umbar (a low-level boss), my spells aren't touching him, so I hang back, buffing and healing Rendar as he gives him a kicking with his higher melee skills. Rendar then helps me out finding the Ambushers on the road to Darnassar I have to kill, and we go our separate ways, before I turn in for the evening. Co-operative play is obviously a lot more fun than playing on your own, but since Zenedar is a brand new server, there aren't really many guilds formed there yet.

It'll be interesting to see how it evolves, and I've signed up for 6 months, because other than KOTOR 2, there's not really anything other than Jade Empire coming up in the next few months that particularly grabs me. WoW should certainly keep me off the streets - there are nine character classes and eight races to try out...
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