Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games may be one of the clumsiest phrases to be coined in the last century, but at least it abbreviates fairly readily to MMORPG. The concept is basically the same as a role playing game, where you create and enhance a unique character through a series of adventures, except a few million of your best friends are there to join you. The games are still populated with all kinds of computer generated characters, but a certain portion of the entities you come across will be controlled by other players like yourself. This adds a really exciting element to the already engaging RPG experience, as the characters you fight and/or co-operate with are no longer imaginary and thus respond in a much more lifelike manner.
Arguably the most successful game in the genre is World of Warcraft, a MMORPG adaptation of the classic real-time strategy games from Blizzard Software. Its fantasy setting lends itself well to comparison with the first super-popular MMORPG, EverQuest. The extreme dedication and extensive amounts of time that stereotypically ‘nerdy’ fans put into both products has raised concern in the media, resulting in some rather hysterical reporting at times. There were even a couple of widely publicised cases of players committing suicide or violent crimes, apparently over in-game issues that had begun to pervade their real lives. It should be noted that schizophrenia and extreme social isolation were contributing factors in all cases, and there are many different ways to become socially isolated besides participating in online gaming. Some have even argued that the social element inherent in multiplayer games makes them less socially disruptive than other pastimes, but the jury is still out on that one.
You have then been sufficiently warned that World of Warcraft is going to completely take over your life if you let it (actually, that could be said for most of the truly great games out there). But what of the game itself? If you’ve ever played a fantasy role playing game, you’re going to have a fair idea of what to expect. You choose a mythological race, a skill set or occupation and then distribute points to your character’s various attributes. The type of character you create has a substantial effect on how you play the game, but in the case of World of Warcraft a great deal of care has been taken to keep the classes and races balanced. Unlike some similar games, you are very unlikely to ever feel like you’ve picked a useless character as everyone has his/her own niche and cooperation can be as vital as conflict.
As you progress through the game’s lands, you get the chance to take on certain quests, or missions, in order to earn attribute points and worldly possessions for your character. These can range from a simple slaying of a dragon to more complex puzzle elements. The key to progressing in the game, and becoming a badass that everyone else fears, is to keep completing missions and earning points. This has been a big downfall for several other games in the genre, as certain players have demonstrated their utter lack of social life by hanging out in front of respawning enemies for hours on end, simply pressing the ‘kill’ button whenever the poor guy shows up again. The missions in WoW seem somehow meatier and less repetitive, while certain programming safeguards have been put in place to reduce the impact of mindless point collectors. There are still problems, as there would be with any project of the sheer scale of WoW, but it compares favourably with the competition in this regard.
The graphics are somehow less than overwhelming when you see still screenshots, but the lush surroundings and vibrant environments you trod through seem to come alive despite their sometimes ludicrously fantastical appearance. You really need to see them moving to appreciate the effect. The sound didn’t make much of an impression on this reviewer, but it does its job. With the right equipment you can talk to your fellow players through a live audio link, which is a nice touch, but one that has become all but standard in the last couple of years.
Overall, a technically competent production but the real stars are the men and women who design, maintain and update the vast array of servers that keep the massive game world running 24/7. Their occasional screw-ups are forgivable in light of the thankless and mind-numbing job they do every day. Overall, World of Warcraft is an excellent game and definitely one of the very best of its kind. The staggering immersiveness of the game’s universe is best illustrated by the realistic way in which your fellow players behave. One example is the so-called ‘Corrupted Blood Plague’ that infected and laid waste to vast swathes of land. While the technical details of what happened would bore you to no end, the practical result of the originally limited ‘infection’ was that animals, game characters and player characters started to become infected and die off rapidly in certain populated areas. This led to a mass exodus from the affected areas, which spread the plague further and eventually created entire ghost towns much like the real plagues of Europe’s Middle Ages. In other words, when faced with a situation similar to that of a real-life black death, WoW players (and their computer generated animals) behaved exactly like the panic stricken ‘every man for himself’ types that all ordinary humans turn into when placed in such a situation. The administrators of the servers eventually responded, and in exactly the same way as one would in the real world: by instating quarantine around the worst affected areas. It may have been a pain in the ass for the players at the time, but an uncontrolled mass infection and subsequent cleanup efforts perfectly illustrated the unexpected realism inherent in a game that is, after all, primarily about killing goblins and such.
Two words of warning, though. First of all, you only get one month’s free subscription when you buy the game, after that you have to register with a credit card or just go to your local video game dealer and ask for a prepaid card. Secondly, the mythology of the Warcraft universe is laid on pretty thick, and although you can safely ignore that element it may scare new players away from an otherwise accessible game. If you can get through the following sentence without feeling way too nerded out to continue, you qualify for taking part in what may ultimately be a very enjoyable experience: “Located in the mysterious insect-infested, quasi-Egyptian themed area of Silithus, Ahn’Qiraj was the capital city of the powerful Qiraji, a race of magical creatures under the thrall of an ancient and terrible Old God who was chained beneath the earth in ages past. A coalition of Night Elves and dragons of the Four Flights fought a war against the Qiraji and their Silithid minions and sealed them behind the Scarab Wall.” Now that’s nerderific! Available for PC and Mac.