12 August 2010

Return to Azeroth


[Above: The rogue Leinarac takes a griffon flight over the snowfields of Dun Morogh, bound for the Dwarven capital, Ironforge]

I’ve been down this road before. 

In 2006 not long before I left Wellington for the big city, I stumped up for a broadband connection at my Karori flat and started playing World of Warcraft with friends.  I’d played plenty of fantasy games before, but the attraction of WoW and its highly-developed world of Azeroth was that aside from the intricately designed game world and the entertaining aspects of gameplay aside from the usual killing monsters and looting treasure, it also benefitted from the ‘massively multiplayer’ aspect.  Each game server has hundreds or even thousands of players participating, which makes the human interaction a very real part of the game’s success.  Even if you’re just soloing a mission, there’s usually a glimpse of other players going about their business, such as tackling monsters, collecting raw materials like herbs or metals, or just journeying from place to place.  This gives Azeroth a real sense of being inhabited and thriving as a community. 

On a few highly enjoyable occasions friends arranged joint gaming sessions in which a bunch of us banded together for joint quests in the Orc lands of Mulgore, and these proved to be very successful.  I even joined an online guild after I ran into one of its recruiters in the Badlands south of Loch Modan.  Its mainly Australian members were a pleasant bunch, with none of the occasional childishness seen in younger players who can be fond of acting out in the anonymous online world.  One evening I found myself playing with and chatting to a gamer living halfway round the world in the Western Australian town of Albany – that’s a separation of nearly 5000km, and yet the distance was meaningless.  

When I left Wellington I ended my WoW subscription, and in the intervening three years in the UK I returned to playing conventional offline games such as Civilisation 4 and Oblivion.  But recently I noticed the local game shop in Putney had a special on a WoW game pack – only £10 for the game and an expansion – and I reasoned that it was time to delve back into WoW to see if it was as much fun as the first time around.

Certainly, one limitation of playing WoW on European game servers is that none of my New Zealand friends are online, but in any case they’ve all stopped playing since 2007, and even if they were playing, the US/Oceania servers are separate from the European ones that I’m now playing on.  But the gameplay is definitely as addictive as ever – from the low-level Alliance grinds through Goldshire and Westfall, to the early instanced dungeon trawls through the Deadmines, the process of building up a character never palls.  It’s ideal for people who like to tinker, forever fiddling with skills, equipment and spells to achieve the best results in combat, or even questing for raw materials to fabricate elaborate craftwork to use or sell on to other players.  It’s also a pleasure to just watch the beautifully realised game world go by as you travel through Azeroth, particularly on the fun griffon rides that speed characters from point to point like a feathery airline service (pictured above). 

Not much has changed since I last played.  Sure, the extra expansion packs mean characters can now reach level 80 as opposed to level 60 when I was playing, but it’s not as if I managed to reach the level cap the first time around.  It is pleasing to note that the arbitrarily high level requirement for purchasing mounts (level 40 or above) has now been reduced to a much more sensible level 20, so now considerably less time is spent running across the huge open spaces of wilderness that separate Azeroth’s towns and cities.  And while there’s always the chance that you might end up playing with a obnoxious random nob-end in a cobbled-together dungeon party, more often than not the players you come across tend to be fairly well-adjusted and reasonable.  A bit like real life actually. 

If only the game wasn’t so bloody addictive perhaps it would be easier to endorse it wholeheartedly.  It’s not easy to pause the gameplay if you’re in the middle of a quest, and it has that slightly scary ‘just ten more minutes’ feeling that can can easily turn into ‘just one more hour’ or more.  So if you lack a reasonable amount of spare time or are particularly weak-willed it’s definitely not for you.  But in the end that’s just a hallmark of the success of the game designers.  In WoW they’ve created a living, breathing gaming environment that truly deserves the popularity it’s accumulated.  

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