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Blizzard Entertainment released World of Warcraft in November of 2004, and then it added an expansion pack, The Burning Crusade, two years later. World of Warcraft appeared at just the right time (with Everquest on its last legs), and it has pretty much ruled the massively multiplayer roost ever since. Now Blizzard is getting ready to add a second expansion pack, Wrath of the Lich King, next month, and the game shows no signs of slowing down.
Given that World of Warcraft has already generated over 50 reviews, and given that millions of people (including, apparently, Mr. T and Mini-Me) have already tried it out, let's just say that the cat's already out of the bag regarding whether the game is any good or not. So I'm only sorta-kinda going to review World of Warcraft here. Mostly I'll just comment on my experiences while playing it for three months, and then I'll talk a little about what to expect from Wrath of the Lich King.
World of Warcraft has a lot of things going for it. First and foremost, it's big, and it gives you lots of things to do. I started playing World of Warcraft in July, and it took me almost three months to get my character to level 70, which is the current cap. During that time I completed almost 1000 quests and explored numerous lands and dungeons -- but I still had only seen about half of the available content. I played a human priest, and so I saw most of the Alliance lands, but there are also lands designed for Horde players and other races, plus special heroic dungeons that require you to not only be level 70, but also have really good equipment, which I don't have yet. So I'm confident that I could play for another three months (even without Wrath of the Lich King), and still not see everything.
Besides places to explore and associated quests to complete, World of Warcraft also gives players other things to do. Characters get to choose professions (like mining and alchemy), and it takes time and effort to build them up. There are also auction houses for buying and selling items (sometimes I spend more time at auction houses than I do killing things), plus a variety of player-versus-player (PvP) activities, including duels and battlegrounds. World of Warcraft comes with two types of servers -- player-versus-environment (PvE) servers, where you basically have to turn on a PvP flag to attack or be attacked by other players, and PvP servers, which are far less restrictive -- and so you can choose the setting that best fits your playing style. I prefer cooperative gameplay, and so I played on a PvE server and avoided the PvP content as much as possible.
For my character, a typical day starts with me going to the Isle of Quel'Danas to complete some (daily) quests. Daily quests are quests that can be completed once each day, and they're a good source of income, since level 70 characters get money instead of experience when they complete quests. If I complete the ten main quests on the island, then I'll earn about 100 gold for the run. That's a lot of gold -- except that I'll eventually need 5000 gold to buy a flying mount for my character, and so every penny counts.
After completing some daily quests, I next try to find a group so I can hunt for better equipment (generally speaking, you play by yourself to gain experience and gold, and you group with other players to explore dungeons and find equipment). Despite usually being pretty good at interfaces, this is a part of the game that Blizzard didn't handle well. Instead of just being able to indicate that you'd just like to join a group, or perhaps join a group going to a heroic dungeon, you can only pick three specific dungeons or quests that you'd like help with, and that makes it more difficult to find groups you'd like to join or people who are willing to join your group.
World of Warcraft also includes some special world events. There are fishing competitions and other activities on most weekends, and there are also some seasonal festivals. Right now the game is in the middle of the Hallow's End festival, which includes Halloween decorations in the cities, special trick-or-treat quests at the inns, and some daily quests involving the Headless Horseman (including defeating him in the Scarlet Monastery graveyard). The seasonal festivals are fun, and they do a nice job of changing the look of the game and giving players something new to do.
If I have one particular bone to pick with World of Warcraft, it's that it is a little too easy to play. There is almost no penalty for death (other than running from a graveyard to your corpse), and so there's no way to fail. As long as you have time, you'll eventually make it to level 70, even if you're the most incompetent player on the face of the planet. There also aren't any restrictions on who you can group with, so a level 1 can group with a level 70. In most games that would mean that the level 1 wouldn't get any experience, but in World of Warcraft, the experience gain is just reduced (by maybe half). Worse, because the group will kill things 100 times faster, the level 1 will actually gain experience more quickly than otherwise, plus get all of the equipment drops and still complete the quests. So not only does grouping with a level 70 not hurt the level 1, it helps him out. I played World of Warcraft for a while in beta, and I remember some of the lower-level dungeons (like the Deadmines) being very tough, but now somebody can just bring in a level 70 and make them a walk in the park. Blizzard could correct this sort of thing if they wanted to, but they don't.
Another slight problem is the economy. Some people have been playing World of Warcraft for years, and so they've accumulated a ton of gold. That's a problem because it means that items are priced for how much a rich player might pay for them, and so life can be tough when you first start the game. You won't be able to afford anything in the auction houses, and you'll have a terrible time trying to save enough money for your mounts. But eventually you'll find some things that rich people want, and you'll be able to take advantage of the economy, and it will work out. It'll just take some time.
Last week Blizzard released the 3.0.2 patch, which laid a lot of the groundwork for the Wrath of the Lich King expansion pack. The interesting thing about the patch is that it included some of the content that I expected to be a part of the expansion pack. For example, the patch unlocked the new inscription profession, which allows players to create glyphs, which can be attached to spellbooks to change how some spells work. One glyph cuts the mana cost for the (power word: fortitude) spell in half, and other glyphs remove the need for spell components, increase the amount of spell damage dealt, or increase the duration of spell effects.
The patch also unlocked the new achievements system. There are now 750 achievements that players can try to complete, and they range from things like exploring zones to completing quests to killing certain enemies. There are even some weird achievements, like using the (love) emote on a variety of forest creatures, including squirrels and prairie dogs. The achievements are nice, because just like professions they give players something extra to think about. Since the patch came out, I've tried knocking out a few achievements every day, but I still have well over 600 to complete.
Finally, the patch made some other changes, like introducing barbershops (where players can change their appearance) and calendars (to show when events and festivals are occurring), and re-balancing the races and classes in preparation for characters being able to advance to level 80. But the big changes, the Death Knight class and the new Northrend continent, will require the Wrath of the Lich King expansion pack, which is set to hit store shelves on November 13.
I generally enjoy casual games as well as more sophisticated titles, and so World of Warcraft has worked out pretty well for me. Going from level 1 to level 50 is pretty casual, and people are happy just to mess around and get stuff done, but then as you approach level 70 things get more serious, and you're more likely to run into people who will only want to deal with you if you know the dungeons by heart and have the best equipment available. The nice thing about World of Warcraft is that you can stay in either circle. If you want to keep things casual, then you can create new characters and explore all of the regular lands. If you want to be more hardcore, then you can build up a character to level 70 and then plug away until you can go into all of the heroic dungeons.
I spent about three months playing World of Warcraft, and that was enough time to get my priest to level 70 plus play a couple of minor characters to around level 20. Even so, there is still a lot of content I haven't seen yet, especially in the way of dungeons, and I'm looking forward to sneaking into them someday, plus exploring the new lands from Wrath of the Lich King when they become available. Since World of Warcraft caters to everybody, has lots of content to see, looks nice and is well run, it's an easy game to recommend, even four years after its debut.