Sunday 4 January 2015

World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor

When «World of Warcraft» was released in 2004, I was ready to embrace it. A massively multiplayer online role-playing game by Blizzard Entertainment just had to be good. Like an eager Apple enthusiast awaiting Steve Job's announcement of the original iPhone a few years later, I was excepting nothing less than a revolution.

Unfortunately, my expectations set me up for inevitable disappointment. Upon release I quickly concluded the game wasn't for me.

Mainly because it was too easy and thus quite boring. As a result, I shelved it, and started playing the more sadistically challenging «Final Fantasy XI» instead.

In the meantime, ten years have passed, and «World of Warcraft» has come to dominate the MMORPG market to such an extent that it's no longer just the king of the genre, but practically a genre unto itself, despite the fact that newer entries have arrived with both better looks and fresher game mechanics.

As such the game has become an institution, both for the hardcore gamer and their less dedicated casual brethren and sisters. Which in itself is interesting independently of whether one is a fan or not.

Time for another shot

As such, I figured the release of «Warlords of Dreanor» would be a good time to give the game a second chance. After all, the new expansion goes back to the game's roots with orcs invading, and it features some improvements to its character models to make the game a bit more visually appealing. And I must say, these improvements were much needed.

Vanilla «World of Warcraft», had precious few ways to make a cool-looking character. The closest I got was by making a Tauren, because that was the character model that looked the least retarded. And it says something about the quality of character designs when the best available alternative is what for all intents and purposes is a two-legged cow.

My brand new hero - after being boosted to level 90 - turned out as a rather mean-looking Draenei Death Knight. He spawned into the game just outside "The Dark Portal", the magical gate to Draenor which incidentally was a lot more monumental than I remembered it from «Warcraft II» in 1995.

We can be heroes

The feeling of being part of something epic is further enhanced as you gaze down on the battle below from your hilltop perch, accompanied by an A-Team of «World of Warcraft» celebrities, whom even I recognize, since they also play central roles in the early «Warcraft» strategy games as well as in «Hearthstone». But despite the fact that you are surrounded by an all-star team of powerful NPCs, the focus is still firmly on you.

Which is good, because the game is still not particularly challenging. But since this time around you are cast as the well established, all-powerful hero out saving the world, it feels natural that enemies fall like flies when you bull-rush them in your stretchy pants and oversized pauldrons.

And to be quite honest, I was also kind of relieved not to be overwhelmed by complexity. If there is one thing I have learned from playing other MMORPGs, it's that there is nothing quite as useless as a new player with a high level character but no understanding of how to play it. Which to be honest, was a pretty good description of me as I started playing with only minor prior exposure to «World of Warcraft».

But my worries turned out to be moot. As you step into the portal, you quickly realize that you don't have all your abilities yet. You only start with a very manageable and particular set of skills, and are gradually given new ones as you reach milestones in the missions. Something which is actually a really good idea. Both so as not to overwhelm new players with complexity, but also to constantly trigger frequent bursts of endorphins during the critical early parts of the game.

All about that base

But the game only really opens up after you have bulldozed your way past enemy lines, and come to an era of relative safety where you can establish your garrison. This is a base which you yourself can manage, and is in my opinion the most interesting aspect of the expansion pack.

Your garrison is first and foremost a staging area for adventures in the new zones. But you can also add buildings to it and thus gather useful game-services in one place, which you would otherwise have to travel to. Examples include trade and auctions houses where you can unload loot, as well as crafters who can modify and tweak your equipment.

Another engaging aspect of your garrison is that it becomes a home for followers, which are NPCs you meet in the course of your adventures, who then join your cause and offer you their service in the battle against the orcish Iron-Horde. Some of them can be used as body guards when you are out adventuring, while others can be put to work as craftsmen in your base.

You can also send them on missions to deal with bothersome creatures and problems around your garrison. In this way they increase their experience levels, and bring back loot, which you yourself can use directly or invest in upgrading the garrison further. In other words, it's possible to get NPCs to play the game for you.

The trick to getting your followers safely back from missions with loot intact is to match them up against adversaries they are particularly well suited to handle. Monsters they meet on missions usually have specific attacks and attributes, and choosing a team with abilities to counter these is the key to success.

«Pokémon» to the people

It's a bit like the fun of collecting and training «Pokémon», combined with an element of resource management that really appeals to my inner middle-manager. In many ways I find this little mini-game more engaging than developing my own actual character in the actual game.

This also often leads to play sessions lasting a little longer than anticipated, as you usually want to have all your "resources" put to work before you log out. And as you get invested, you are also likely to start checking on their progress during the work-day in order to see how they are doing.

It's got the look

Another thing which strikes me is how good the world looks for being a ten year old game. At least parts of it. The art direction in «World of Warcraft» was initially criticized by many (myself included) for being too cartoonish, but similar to the visual stylings of «The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker» – which was also given some flak – the game has aged far more graciously than its contemporaries that went with the more "realistic" approach.

The graphical assets are often of such low complexity, that they could have been used in a game for the Dreamcast, but they work visually and are colorful (perhaps a little too colorful until you turn off character names and other unnecessary screen clutter). It's also clear that the art-department has gone the extra mile to make the world look as good as possible for the expansion, because if you take a trip back to Azeroth you will quickly notice that these older zones don't quite live up to the splendor of the new areas.


Even though the art-style is the same, the design is nowhere near as well executed, and the landscapes often seem empty and void of life. This can of course have something to do with the fact that it practically is, as most of the players have moved over to Draenor.

Other assets also show their age. With the exception of the intro cinematic (where we amongst other things learn that Grommash Hellscream has a very nice and flowing mane for an orcish warlord), the cinematics used in the story are quite underwhelming. So underwhelming in fact, that one must ask why they didn't just go with in-engine cut-scenes instead.

The story is however quite decent, and the general vibe is often nostalgia-inducing for an old «Warcraft» veteran. So much so that I occasionally get the urge to go back and play through some of the old expansions. I must admit that I kind of always wanted to run through «Wrath of The Lich King», just to find out what eventually happened to Arthas.

When it comes to the social aspect of the game, my opinion is divided. On the one hand it's nice to meet other players out in the wilderness, and I find it kind of cool to wander around Stormshield - the local adventurer hub - and check out the armor and mounts of players who have put in the hours to become seasoned veterans

My need to actually do something with other players is however not particularly strong. Mainly because the earlier mentioned difficulty curve is forgiving enough so that one usually does just fine on ones own. Still, I have joined a guild. A pretty relaxed one, where people usually do more chatting than actual playing. But it has a small core of players who go on more organised excursions into parts of the game which requires some coordination.

And when you decide to do something which requires a party - like a dungeon - the functionality for automatically putting together a team is there. And it's a quantum improvement compared to old-school MMORPGs where you had to organise things manually, by actually talking to players.

50 shades of classical conditioning

In retrospect, I can see that my initial disenchantment with «World of Warcraft» may have been a little rushed. As a result, I have probably missed lots of rewarding moments with other players through the years. On the other hand I got to finish my studies, as I can totally see how one might become hooked on «World of Warcraft» to an unhealthy degree. The reward-curve in this game is exemplary fine tuned so that you constantly feel like you are getting new loot and abilities just often enough to stay invested. But as you progress the curve is sneakily and gradually flattened, so that the amount of time needed to reach the next milestone increases compared to what you get out of it, almost without you noticing it.

Something which ultimately brings you down the road of eternally upgrading your gear through raids, in order to be well enough equipped to participate in raids to get better gear, which requires following orders of overbearing leaders, overtime and mandatory participation. And since I already have a job, and prefer to play a variety of games rather than focusing all my attention into one, this is not an end-game well suited for me.

Still, my time in «Warlords of Draenor» has been quite rewarding, and combined with the fixing of «Diablo III» by way of the «Reaper of Souls» expansion and Loot 2.0, Blizzard Entertainment has managed to convince me that they still know their shit. I'm therefore likely to return to visit both Azeroth and Draenor in the future, but still unlikely to move there permanently.

No comments:

Post a Comment