There’s a small trend developing which I like to call MMORPG-Light. Essentially developers are looking to craft the big, epic experience of a MMORPG but are concerned about the way to sustain it. Whilst Free to Play is the way many attempt to go you’re competing against so many in the same space it’s hard to stand out. The traditional subscription model is a much harder sell with only a few lumbering giants still maintaining that model going forward. Thus they choose somewhere in the middle, often in the form of regular paid expansions or season passes. We saw it first with Destiny and now with The Division, the latest game in the Tom Clancy universe.
On Black Friday a terrible disease sweeps through New York City. Known only as the Green Poison it devastates Manhattan and causes widespread chaos, requiring the city to be put into quarantine. You are an agent of The Division, an elite unit with sleeper units embedded everywhere around the world, tasked with dealing with situations like this. You are part of the Second Wave of agents, tasked with retaking Manhattan and tracking down the source of the epidemic. It won’t be easy however as the lawlessness has given rise to gangs of looters, crazed workers and paramilitary corporations looking to exploit the chaos. You will do battle with them all agent as there is no one else left who can.
The Division comes to us via a new engine called Snowdrop, developed by Massive for use on next-generation consoles (except the WiiU) and PCs. Unlike other MMORPG styled games The Division is a visual assault of detail, down the most interesting levels. For instance shooting out glass works almost exactly how you’d expect it to, with pieces breaking off and shattering much like it would in real life. Things like that, coupled with the incredible attention given to all of the environments, makes for a very immersive experience. This is what makes the relatively small world seem so impressive as there’s just so much to explore when compared to your more traditional MMORPG affair. It’s also worth mention that the sound design of The Division is well above any other game I’ve played which helps to sell you on the world even further.
The comparisons to Destiny, which would appear to be its closest relative, are somewhat apt however The Division leans much more heavily towards a more traditional MMORPG experience. There’s no classes to speak of but you can choose from an array of skills that can be unlocked through gathering supplies for various parts of your base. There’s talents and perks to choose from that allow you to further customize your character to your play style. There’s quests to be done and dungeons to plunder, all in the name of the ultimate goal of any RPG game: the quest for sweet loot. However the end game of The Division is unlike that of any other game out there, being a hybrid model of PVP and PVE. It’s a game that definitely has the potential to capture you for a long period of time, however due to its end game design it feels like there’s an expiration date for nearly all who play it.
Combat comes in the form of your standard cover-based shooter, augmented by the RPG elements of skills and talents. You’ll spend most of your time running between cover, taking shots and enemies doing much the same. Often you’ll have to strategize to make sure that certain enemies are downed quickly before others, lest they wipe your entire group. You have semi-infinite health regeneration in the form 3 bars which will regenerate over time but not into the next bar. You’re also limited by the amount of ammunition you carry although until the end game you’re never likely to run out. The variety of different kinds of weapons means that there’s something to suit almost any playstyle, although you’ll be quick to learn that close combat is as much a fool’s errand here as it is everywhere else. Overall the combat is enjoyable even if it isn’t particularly inventive.
Progression is comparatively fast paced with max level (30) reached in around 20 hours or so. Each main quest will easily give you a full level and the side quests/events giving you anywhere from 10%~20%. You’ll also be receiving lavishings of gear, talents and perks as you level up and complete quests, meaning you’re never too far off feeling like you’re getting somewhere. This can be a good or bad thing depending on who you ask as it’s far too easy to lose long stretches of time, especially when it comes to the longer, more in depth missions. For a seasoned MMORPGer like myself I liked the reduced amount of effort required to max out my character, although beyond that point things start to get a little murky.
Like with any MMORPG the end game is all about the loot and crafting your character to be the best they possibly can be. In The Division this comes through three main avenues: the Dark Zone, Challenge Modes and Phoenix credits. The Dark Zone is the open slather PVP arena that’s peppered with numerous NPCs who drop end game gear. However you can’t simply pick it up and walk out with it, instead you need to go to an extraction point to lift it out. At any point between when you pick up the loot and when you extract it another agent can kill you and take it. This leads to some rather tense situations where you’re all sitting around an extraction point, hoping no one gets any bright ideas. The Challenge Modes are simply harder versions of the regular missions which give better rewards at the end. Both of these activities give you the end game currency of Phoenix Credits which can then be redeemed for high end gear. So no matter your preferred play style you’ll be able to get end game loot but how long you keep at that is anyone’s guess.
You see once you get that gear there’s really not much more to do. My current character is already sporting half high end gear and half purples and there’s really no more content that’s beyond me. Sure, my team still struggles to do challenge modes perfectly on the first go but we can still do them in a reasonable time frame. With other MMORPGs there’d be some kind of raid or equivalent for us to try our mettle against but, in its current state, The Division lacks any further high end content. This means that for hard/casual-core players we’re likely to tap ourselves out in the coming week or so with no new content in sight for some time. Granted this is something on the order of 60+ hours worth of game play, but that’s minuscule when compared to other MMORPGs. It’s an interesting issue that Massive will need to tackle if they want to keep everyone interested between content drops.
The Division is also anything but a perfect experience, marred by weird behaviour, glitches and the ever present threat of server lag. Quite often you’ll find skills not working how they’re supposed to, physics bugs trapping you in certain places or things straight up not working at all. The server lag issue remained throughout my play time, even after the initial burst of players settled down somewhat. This usually manifests itself as damage occurring in chunks and NPCs moving in fits and bursts. Thankfully I only had one crash to speak of but I did have numerous other times where I or another party member was dumped to menu or sent back to my last safe house. Overall though the experience was good when compared to other MMORPGs, even if it was frustrating at times.
The story of The Division is interesting, having a modicum of depth to it thanks to it’s roots in Tom Clancy’s writings. It’s an interesting twist on the post-apocalyptic scene that’s all the rage currently, giving a good explanation to the “everyone is the hero” problem that many similar games face. The various enemy factions you face are given decent development, making them more than just faceless masses you need to wade through in the quest for purples. Since this is a game that’s going to evolve substantially over the coming year though it feels like the current conclusion is just a stop gap until they can get the content engine turning. Suffice to say that most people aren’t going to be play this for the plot but it provides a serviceable narrative none the less.
The Division is an excellent MMORPG-Light experience, finding a solid balance between more traditional mechanics and a more modern, streamlined approach. The world is exceptionally well crafted with everything from the detailed environments to the sound design to even the UI blending together to create an incredibly immersive experience. The core mechanics are solid, providing a good challenge and well paced progression. The experience isn’t seamless, although given this is Massive’s first attempt at such a game its commendable how polished the final product is. The narrative is bolstered by the Tom Clancy name and writings, even if it’s somewhat secondary to what most players will be looking for in this game. Overall The Division is an excellent game that’s been deserving of much of the hype it received before release but the true test, in how long it can continue to captivate players, is still ahead of it.
The Division is available on PC, XboxOne and PlayStation4 right now for $89.95, $99.95 and $99.95 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 37 hours of total playtime, reaching max level and completing all missions.
World of Warcraft stands out as an exception in the MMORPG world. Where nearly all other titles have either faltered or drastically altered their business models in order to survive World of Warcraft has remained steadfast to its subscription based system. This has made it the most successful MMORPG ever, making it a multi-billion dollar business all of its own. However its heydays are long behind it, with subscriber numbers slowly dwindling over the years. The more regular release of expansions have helped to keep the number up somewhat but the downward trend was still easily noticeable. Blizzard, obviously aware of this, has decided to stop reporting subscriber numbers altogether after their last quarterly report yesterday.
The last subscriber count pegs World of Warcraft’s player count at about 5.5 million, the lowest it’s been in 10 years. Whilst that number might sound like the first rattles of World of Warcraft’s death knell it’s likely anything but as many long time MMORPGs have survived on much smaller subscription numbers. For Blizzard it does present a challenge as dwindling numbers can often have a runaway effect; reaching a critical point where the majority of the playerbase abandons the title for greener pastures. That point is probably still some time away and indeed if the last subscriber peak (from the last expansion) is repeatable then I see no reason for World of Warcraft to go away any time soon. However the change in what (Activision) Blizzard communicates, as well as their recent purchase of King, is indicative of some of the other issues the company is facing in their attempt to stay relevant.
It was around this time that Blizzard was planning to announce their next MMORPG based on an entirely new IP. This was known internally as Project Titan, a name which got more than a few people fired when it was made public. Unfortunately the game simply didn’t work in the way it was originally envisioned and it was scrapped late last year. Whilst Overwatch may have arisen out of its remnants it meant that many who were looking towards Blizzard’s next MMORPG were left wanting and thus began to look elsewhere. Had project Titan been released around this time the demise of World of Warcraft might have been fully sealed but it would have been a greater win for the company overall.
This has led many to call for World of Warcraft to change their subscription model to be more inline with current trend of switching to free-to-play. To be sure the transition can be made as The Old Republic and other titles have shown however there’s little incentive for Blizzard to do so when their monthly revenue rate is still in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Until they’re really hurting for numbers, and I mean really hurting, such a transition would likely devastate their revenues to the point where World of Warcraft wasn’t sustainable. However I think Activision Blizzard recognises this as a potential possibility and that’s where the acquisition of King comes into play.
King, for those who don’t know, are the developers behind the incredibly successful Candy Crush saga. Activision Blizzard is paying a cool $5.9 billion for the company which isn’t a bad deal if their current profit rate of $127 million per quarter is anything to go by. They are undoubtedly one of the leaders in the free-to-play model and there’s every chance they’re buying them with a view to revamp the business models for some of their products. This isn’t limited to Blizzard titles of course, but the timing of the two announcements certainly makes it feel like they might be related.
This definitely feels like a pivot point for Activision Blizzard as they muse through their options for future growth. There’s definitely a trend for their newer IPs to be done differently to those of the past and how Overwatch is positioned will be strongly telling of how they see game development in the future. Right now it points to a free-to-play future, one that could very well make its way into already established IPs. If any company can make the transition work, and work well, it’s Activision Blizzard but no change of this magnitude is without risk.
World of Warcraft might have been my first MMORPG but in the decade that followed I’ve played my fair share of titles in that genre. Few of them have managed to make me come back after the initial play through (indeed I think only EVE Online has) but I’m readily familiar with the idea that my character is a kind of temporal thing. All those hours I put into getting them to max level and then kitting them out with gear will likely all amount to naught when the next expansion comes out. If it didn’t I wouldn’t have much incentive to keep playing as completely maxing out a character would be a one time deal. However if you were to take the reaction to Destiny’s latest DLC it would appear that the majority of its playerbase thinks the opposite, which is strangely out of touch with reality.
I’ll admit that in the beginning Destiny’s loot system was inherently flawed. Things like Legendary engrams turning into green items meant that you had to pray to RNGesus twice in order to get the purples you desired, something which wasn’t fixed until months after launch. The raid was also just as bad as even if you ran it every week there was no guarantee you’d get the drops you needed to make it to level 30. Indeed I never did, despite my vault now being filled with 7 chatterwhite shaders (one for every week I ran it). However I still managed to progress my character in other ways, maxing out all my weapons and completing several of the exotic weapon bounties.
Then the DLC dropped and it seemed like I’d be starting from scratch again.
Except I wasn’t. Sure my exotics weren’t automatically upgraded and the new max level was 32 but I was able to complete all the new content (bar the raid) as my 29 self with my pre-DLC weapons. I even got randomly invited to the new raid with a bunch of guys just because I had everything maxed out and whilst we didn’t get past the second boss it was still awesome to give it a go without having to do anything. Once I got my head around all the new systems available to me it didn’t take long for me to figure out that I was a few strange coins, vanguard marks and commendations away from surpassing my previous level cap of 29. In fact I did just that over the weekend and I am now a proud member of the level 31 elite.
By comparison taking my level 90 paladin in World of Warcraft to level 100 took me the better part of 2 weeks and he wasn’t even ready to run the raid at that point. For the last week or so I’ve spent the majority of my time in that game gearing him up (increasing his iLvl which is directly equivalent to the Light level in Destiny) in order to be able to do the new raid. I was finally able to do it late yesterday afternoon after almost a day in game time of doing various dungeons, gathering up the crafting mats and getting lucky on a few drops. In Destiny to accomplish the same feat I didn’t have to do any of that. I simply completed a quest chain, did the weekly runs and spent a small portion of my strange coin haul on upgrading my chestpiece. It was honestly one of the most pleasant levelling up experiences I’ve ever had in a MMORPG.
I’ll forgive anyone who doesn’t recognise Destiny for the MMO that it is being angry that all their playtime has been for naught (well, mostly) but eventually they’ll have to recognise that, yes, you’re playing one and this is what happens. Bungie made the levelling up process pretty painless, so much so that a filthy casual like myself was able to bash his way to 31 in the space of a weekend. It’s not like all that gear I’ve got is automatically useless anyway either, I’m still rocking my Vision of Confluence and Atheon’s Epilogue most of the time since I haven’t found a good replacement and I think that’ll hold for some time to come. The worst part might’ve been spending 14,000 glimmer and 14 strange coins on upgrading my 2 exotics of choice but that’s nothing when glimmer is everywhere and I’ve had 50+ strange coins for weeks.
It’s probably just the loud minority having their voices heard the most in this respect as I’m sure the vast majority of all the players are actually enjoying the new content rather than bitching about it. Indeed I was content to keep my big mouth shut about it after getting some time to sit down with it over the weekend however it seems that the games churnalism sites have latched on to the faux outrage with reckless abandon. In all seriousness I hope that those who are bitching about the DLC put their money where their mouth is and walk away as it’s only a matter of time before the next DLC and I’d rather not have to listen to people whine about all their time being “wasted”.
Logging into my World of Warcraft account is always a mix of feelings for me. On the one hand I have so many great memories, forging friendships with people and just enjoying the enormous amount of content that was on offer. It wasn’t all roses however and thinking back (and looking at some of the screenshots) it’s painfully obvious just how much growing up I needed to do. Today World of Warcraft is no longer a major part of my life, instead it’s something that I enjoy from time to time, reveling in the Warcraft world and trying my hand at the latest raids. Indeed the World of Warcraft of today feels like it’s catered towards people like me and the improvements in Warlords of Draenor continue that theme.
Garrosh Hellscream’s thirst for power has no bounds which culminated in him releasing the Sha of Pride upon the lands of Pandaria. This led to the Horde and Alliance joining forces to overthrow him in the Siege of Orgrimmar which eventually led to his capture. However before he could be sent to trial he was rescued by a bronze dragon, Kairozdormu, who shared in his ambition for power and control. The dragon then sent him back in time to before the orcs drank the blood of Mannoroth, preventing the blood curse. He then united the disparate clans under the banner of the Iron Horde and set out to conquer all of Draenor. It is up to you, dear champion, to stop this madness before it unwrites the history of the world and Garrosh’s madness spreads beyond the lands of Draenor.
Warlords of Draenor feels about the same from a graphical point of view, mostly due to the short difference in time between this expansion and it’s predecessor, however they did make some noticeable improvements to the base character models. It’s a welcome change as those models, whilst looking great in 2004, had started to show their age 10 years on. Apart from that though everything is at about the same level although it seems like the default draw distance has been ramped up significantly (with little impact to performance, I might add). Still it’s hard to get tired of Blizzard’s trademark style with the vibrant colours and wonderful stylization.
Much of the core gameplay remains the same as it did from previous expansions with the classes remaining largely the same with a few tweaks and balance changes. Warlords of Draenor continues on the quality of life improvements that came as part of Cataclysm, ensuring that everything from questing to running dungeons is simple and free of frustrations. The biggest change is the inclusion of the Garrison, your own private town in which you’ll have a multitude of buildings and resources that you can use to craft items or sell on the auction house. The Garrison also brings with it followers which are NPCs that you can send on various missions to level them up, acquire loot and provide resources for your garrison. Overall long time World of Warcraft players will feel instantly at home with Warlords of Draenor and be incredibly thankful for the improvements that Blizzard has made.
Unlike previous expansions, where upon logging in I was greeted with action bars missing numerous skills and dozens of alerts on what I should be doing, Warlords of Draenor kept the character classes largely the same. I’m speaking from the point of view of my paladin, of course, although my cursory look at other classes seems to show they underwent about the same amount of changes as use paladins did. This meant that I was able to get into the game much quicker than I have been able to previously, my muscle memory (and keybinds) still carrying over from my last stint in WoW early last year. It’s both a good and a bad thing as whilst I’d lament having to figure out how to play my character again it is kind of satisfying when I feel like I’ve mastered it again. Still, I’ll take quality of life over many other things these days.
The Garrison is by far my favourite improvement in Warlords of Draenor as it takes away so many of the things that made playing World of Warcraft feel like a chore rather than a game. You have your very own mine, herb garden and fishing pond which you can plunder on a daily basis for resources. You get to select a handful of buildings which do various things, some of which enable you to do things like craft items without having the profession. It also serves as an alternative route to gearing up your character as there are several different buildings which can provide raid quality gear. It also comes with its own currency, Garrison Resources, which whilst primarily aimed at buying buildings and sending followers on missions, can serve as an alternative means to acquiring resources and other things. For the semi-casual players like myself who can’t dedicate a good portion of their lives to the game anymore the Garrison serves as a way of levelling the playing field, although the hard core still have ways of getting ahead.
The flip side of this though means that, should you have the resources to power yourself ahead, you likely won’t be able to. Nearly all of the resources required to craft high end gear or grant you access to epic gear avenues are on strict timers that can’t be rushed. Thus the time your account is active is a far bigger player in how far you’ll progress your character than time you spend in the game, at least for us filthy casuals. For someone like me who sometimes finds himself with a decent chunk of time on his hands to thrash things out like this it’s a little frustrating, but at least it means that I don’t feel compelled to spend that amount of time every day trying to advance my character.
I deliberately avoided playing the game at launch as I was sure that, even 10 years down the line, Blizzard would still be unable to deal with the onslaught that is an expansion release. For the most part my experience has been extremely pleasant with nary a queue to speak of unless I try to login between 8pm and 9pm. Even then the queue, which I’ve seen reach 1000, is usually done and dusted within 15 minutes so no issue there. There are still some quests which bug out or have incorrect minimap icons, which can be highly frustrating at the time, however out of the hundreds I completed I could probably count the number of broken ones on both hands. By this point though it’s somewhat cliche to praise Blizzard for their ability to deliver a polished product as that’s their MO for every single title they’ve released in the last 2 decades.
The story of Warlords of Draenor is an interesting one, although as someone who skipped the later parts of Mists of Pandaria I did have to do a little reading to catch up on just what the hell was going on. Like most Blizzard games the world has an exceptional amount of detail however it peters out quite quickly once you’re not talking to any of the main characters. The main story is quite interesting however although there just wasn’t quite enough to draw me into it. Then again this isn’t exactly a story-first kind of game so I wasn’t exactly looking for it either. Overall I’d say the story was serviceable, just lacking in an emotional hook to draw me in.
World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor demonstrates how well Blizzard knows their subscribers, vastly improving your quality of life when playing through their signature MMORPG. Players returning from a long time break will find the game familiar enough to get a running start but different enough that they don’t feel like they’re playing the same game from a couple years ago. The Garrison is the stand out improvement of this expansion, introducing dozens of new game elements whilst removing much of the grind that is common to MMORPGs. I have yet to set foot in a heroic or the recently opened up LFR for Highmaul however, something which I’m sure will keep me going over the next few months. In closing I feel that Warlords of Draenor is a solid improvement on the World of Warcraft title, one that even decade long players like myself can readily enjoy.
World of Warcarft: Warlords of Draenor is available on PC right now for $54.95. Total game time was approximately 33 hours reaching level 100 and iLvl 617.
There seems to be two major camps of thought when it comes to levelling in MMORPGs. The first are those who like to take their time with it, soaking in the experience of the vast world presented to them and diving deep into the story elements. The others are fiercely focused on the end goal: get to max level and begin attacking end game content to create the most powerful characters possible. Both are legitimate forms of play and indeed a good MMORPG caters to both players but no matter which camp a player belongs to they will all ask the same question of a new game before they dive into it.
How long does it take to get to max level?
The reasons for asking the question differ significantly between both camps. For those who enjoy the levelling experience (I count myself as being primarily in this camp, although a little more on that later) the time to max level is a signifier of how much content they can expect to see before their preferred experience comes to an end. Heavily story based MMORPGs like Star Wars: The Old Republic the answer comes back as varied range depending on how far you want to dive into a particular story arc. End game raiders typically want to know the minimum amount of time required, often shortcutting past story elements and less efficient levelling zones, as the game for them doesn’t really start until they reach max level.
After you’ve done the levelling once though it’s often not the same when you go through and level again. Whilst many recent MMORPGs have made significant inroads to delivering unique experiences to different character classes, factions and whatever delineations they might have it’s almost inevitable that there will be some overlap between them. Thus levelling another character, referred to as an alt (alternate), can often be seen as something as a chore. Indeed for my first alt in World of Warcraft the game played out almost identically with the only difference being how combat evolved and my place in the various dungeons. It’s quite different now though and indeed the time taken to reach max level has been drastically reduced so when an item like the above shows up, allowing you to reach max level instantly for a price, the reaction has been somewhat mixed although I feel it’s overwhelmingly a positive thing.
I’ve been the proud owner of at least one max level character (usually 2) in every World of Warcraft expansion that’s come out. Whilst I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the levelling process on every occasion I rarely want to go through it again. Indeed nearly every time I’ve come back to World of Warcraft there’s been some kind of incentive program that made my levelling life a whole lot easier and the thought of having to redo it, for real this time, often doesn’t appeal enough. Something like this which would allow me to try out a character class which I’d otherwise have to slog through for countless hours for seems like a good deal to me, even if I feel the asking price is maybe a smidge above what I’d be willing to pay. I think that’s the point though and the next expansion comes with a free level up anyway.
I would put one caveat on it, if I could, and that would be that you would need at least 1 max level character before being able to purchase additional ones. This is something that the World of Warcraft forums have long debated over, often wanting the ability to boost their alts up to a certain level once they have a single character at max. I think the idea has merit as those who truly enjoy the levelling experience will do it regardless and those who are seeking end game content, the ones who usually spend the most time with the game by far, will always have at least a single max level character before they seek out another.
For me though things like this present a chance to reinvent myself every time a new expansion comes out. Whilst I’ve been an on again, off again player for the better part of 10 years now there are still classes I’ve yet to play in any meaningful sense and the allure of starting completely fresh in a new world is always enticing. I may never purchase one of these level boosts but I’m glad they exist as they would give me the opportunity to play with others who don’t have the time to invest in levelling.
There’s something to be said for a game that’s been around for 8 years and can still claim the title of most subscribed game in the world. There’s a good reason for that, World of Warcraft provides one of the most polished gaming experiences around and continues to provide fresh content on a very regular basis. It’s for that reason that many people like me find themselves coming back for every expansion, even if we don’t end up staying for long after we finish the main quest line. I’ve been a little late to the party on this one, mostly because I didn’t have much incentive to go back, but when my friends told me they had reactivated the accounts I figured it was a good time to give it a playthrough and I’m very glad I did.
Mists of Pandaria takes place after the events of Cataclysm and the defeat of Deathwing. The young prince Anduin Wrynn (I played on Alliance side for this one) was travelling between the continents when his ship came into contact with the horde. During the ensuing battle an as of yet unknown landmass was discovered and both the ships were wrecked there. One of the crew managed to get a message out prior to this happening and you, along with a crack team of alliance soldiers are sent to rescue him. However what you discover is the long hidden land of Pandaria, inhabited by a race of humanoid Pandas who have embraced a monkish life, favouring balance over all things. The Horde and Alliance presence there has had the unfortunate effect of awakening an old evil, one that must be defeated lest Pandaria fall.
As always Blizzard has done an amazing job with the graphical improvements in Mists of Pandaria. The draw distance has been increased dramatically, allowing you to take in massive vistas that seem to sprawl out forever in front of you. The modelling and texturing in the new areas also appears to be vastly improved over its predecessors which does unfortunately highlight how dated some other aspects are (like when you’re browsing faces in the character creator). Still it says a lot that my screenshot folder was filled with all sorts of wonderful landscapes as they really were quite impressive.
Whilst a lot has changed since I last played World of Warcraft (around a year or so) the core of it still remains largely the same. You start off in one location, head off to do some quests and once you’re finished in that area you’ll head off to the next one to repeat the process. How you go about that has changed rather dramatically with the ideas introduced in Cataclysm, quest hubs and the like, improved upon considerably. There’s also been vast changes to the skill and talent systems which meant that character classes I was once familiar with suddenly feel very different. All of this adds up to a game that has the same overall feel as previous expansions did but plays very differently.
Probably my favourite among the improvements in Mists of Pandaria is the much smarter rewards system that takes into account your current class and specialization, offering you gear that is quite likely to be useful to you. I can’t tell you how many of the rewards in previous expansions just went straight to the vendor but in Mists the vast majority of them were useful upgrades. Even better was the fact the rewards kept scaling upwards with each new area I’d go to, ensuring that I always had enough gear to complete quests there rather than me having to hunt through the Auction House in order to make the cut. Couple this with a few dungeons here and there and I never felt like struggling, unless the encounter was specifically design to test me.
I think that feeds into the larger overall feeling that the whole World of Warcraft experience has just been streamlined, almost to the point of perfection. After I had blasted through 80 to 85 (as I got a Scroll of Resurrection from a friend) I was surprised just how well the quest chains seemed to line up. It was pretty much spot on for me gaining a new level and then a quest would send me onto the next area, ensuring that I didn’t waste my time in an area that would slow down my levelling pace. Couple this with other things like the in built quest tracker, better designed quests and dungeons that don’t require Deadly Boss Mods and 10 minutes on Wowhead to understand means that you’ll rarely find yourself wanting for anything, bar possibly the occasional Google search.
I unfortunately failed to get to 90 before deadline so I didn’t get a look into some of the endgame content but my friends who have been playing for a while before me say its top notch. The addition of raids to the dungeon finder has apparently made the whole experience much more enjoyable. Gearing up for current raid tiers has also been made a lot easier by significantly upping the drop rates of items in previous raids, saving people a lot of time by not requiring them to run old content constantly (something that was a real drag in the past). There’s also a whole host of other things I didn’t bother trying like crafting or pet battles but I highly doubt I was missing out on anything amazing there.
What really impressed me though was the huge amount of work Blizzard has put into the quests and the storylines behind them. All of the storyline quests, of which there are many, are fully voice acted, something that was limited to in game cutscenes and cinematics previously. This would be cool on its own but every quest hub also has its own little story line behind it, giving you an insight into why they’re there and how it all fits into the larger picture. It says a lot when you actually start caring about the NPCs as they just felt like part of the environment before. Now they’re actual characters, integral to the overall story.
This goes hand in hand with the brilliant music direction care of Russell Brower who’s been behind the music of all the expansions since The Burning Crusade. Whilst many games can get music right in pre-rendered scenes and scripted in game events rarely does the music feel like its meant to be there during the regular parts of the game. In Mists of Pandaria it’s far more than background noise, adding that extra element that complements everything else. If you’re interested it’s available on iTunes, if you don’t want to play the game that is.
I’ve been a long time fan of the World of Warcraft series having followed it from closed beta all the way up to the game that it is today. The way I’ve played it has changed dramatically over the past 8 years and the changes they’ve made are the reason I’ve kept coming back time and time again. Whilst I don’t believe I will ever get back to the same insane, near addiction levels that I did all the way back when I first started playing I don’t believe that’s a bad thing. Instead World of Warcraft has become that co-operative RPG that I play with friends every year or so and I’ll be damned if I don’t have fun every time.
World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria is available on PC right now for $69.99. Total play time on a new level 80 character was 32 hours, reaching level 89 (and maybe 1/3rd of the way through that).
If we spin back the clock a couple decades we find ourselves in a time when games fit quite easily into all of their genres. If you were told that a game was a Real Time Strategy you could be pretty sure it’d contain units, resources and buildings that you needed to build up in a strategic way in order to win. First Person Shooters were just that, you holding a gun and running from one end of a level to another ensuring that anything that got in your way didn’t stay that way for very long. Role playing games would have multiple character classes, pages of statistics and long running stories that would carry you through from the start right up until the end. Today however those kinds of boundaries aren’t so well defined with many games blending elements from several different genres which calls into question the use of these broad genres when classifying current generation titles.
Jonathan Holmes of Destructoid fame then asks if its time for us to retire the term RPG as it no longer seems to be a good fit for the games that fall under that genre. He makes a good point too, many games that include rudimentary aspects of RPG titles like levels, classes or statistics often get categorized as RPGs alongside other titles that seem far more deserving of the classification. Now that games are garnering bigger budgets and technology has advanced exponentially since the term was first used in the video games industry I’d have to agree with him that the use of the general RPG term is probably outmoded but we’re a long way away from retiring it completely.
For me personally if a game is to have the RPG moniker applied to it there has to be a couple attributes for it to qualify. Primarily it comes from being able to customize your playstyle to a fairly high level which is usually achieved through the use of classes or talent tree specializations. This, in effect, is what allows you to define your role in the game whether it be from a fire slinging mage to a half cyborg engineer who uses all manner of machines to do his bidding. Stat building, levels and all the other means to this end are really ancillary to the goal of being able to craft a role that you want to play within that game universe and that, in my mind, is the loophole that allows other games to have aspects of a RPG yet not fall into that genre.
However I feel that the term RPG is too broad to encompass everything that now fits under its original definition and that’s where the liberal use of prefixes is warranted. Whilst saying a game is a RPG might conjure a particular image for some and not others you’d be hard pressed to misunderstand what I mean when I said a game was a FPS RPG, action RPG or MMORPG. Each of these sub-genres each has a much more distinct set of guidelines for a game to fall under its umbrella and I feel is the proper way to identify games that blur the traditional definition of a RPG. In essence this means that the term RPG becomes a broad category that encompasses all of these sub-genres and can no longer be used to refer to a single category of games based on its original definition.
The redefinition of the RPG term is a sign that the games industry has grown beyond its traditional roots where everything fell neatly into the categories as we had defined them. I think that’s a wonderful thing as it shows that game developers are experimenting with game ideas that cross genres, blending elements from both in order to create game experiences that are truly unique. Indeed with all my reviews there have been many times when I’ve struggle to pin games down to one genre and that’s not just limited to RPGs. We may no longer be able to use the term to refer to a specific type of game but that doesn’t mean we should abandon the term entirely as the RPG ideals are still valid in today’s gaming industry.
I’m something of a collector of failed MMORPGs. Every since my addiction began with World of Warcraft it seemed I was forever doomed to roam the genre in search of that same feeling that World of Warcraft inspired in me. Let’s just say that in my travels I’ve seen nearly everything, from inventive PvP systems to epic grinds that required almost more time than I had invested in World of Warcraft just to reach the end game content. Over time I’ve started to notice the patterns of what causes some MMORPGs to carry on whilst others struggle to keep their users just months after release. The answer is quite simple but it seems some academics might have a different idea.
Take Ramin Shokrizade, a self proclaimed virtual economy expert who’s latest piece takes aim at Star Wars: The Old Republic’s decision to convert their MMORPG into a free to play model in order to try and get people back into the game. Whilst he does make some good points regarding how TOR felt like a massively single player game (as the campaign was arguably the best thing about it, even though it was a lot more fun to do with friends) the main point of his article, that the monetization strategy was the primary cause for failure, is ultimately only a side issue to the bigger issues at hand.
Shokrizade makes the point that the value players generated, judged by looking at auction house prices and the cost of purchasing credits from real money trading sites, decreased rapidly over the first month. He lays the blame for this specific decline at an instance reset exploit that allowed users to generate quite a lot of credits and whilst this might be a factor in the decline his analysis also fails to include the fact that in any new MMORPG in game currency attracts a high premium at the beginning, usually due to the fact that there isn’t that much of it in circulation. Indeed if you tracked the same statistic for other virtual worlds you would see identical declines as the currency generating capacity of the wider player base and the gold farmers increased significantly. This is not a new phenomena as I’ve seen it happen in nearly every MMO that I’ve played to date.
He also makes the mistake of saying that “As combat in SWTOR was balanced for PvE, PvP combat balance was never attainable”. Nearly all MMORPGs tend to focus on one of these two aspects in order to attract players to the game. SW:TOR focused heavily on the PvE aspect as that’s where BioWare’s strengths are and indeed by all accounts they succeeded at doing so. Whilst the PvP wasn’t as balanced in the beginning saying that because of the PvE focus PvP balance was unattainable is laughable as balance is an ongoing process that evolves with the game. Indeed when I left the PvP balance was far better due to the 50 only arenas, more people having better gear and vast improvements in game code to make the world PvP areas much more playable. The items were comparable to their PvE counterparts however they had PvP stats on them which meant for guilds who were tackling high end content on the hardest difficulties they were unfortunately useless as you couldn’t achieve the stats required.
However Shokrizade’s biggest blunder is when he lays blame at SW:TOR’s monetization scheme for its current troubles. He posits that the unlimited model, the one where you pay a monthly fee and get access to the entire game, encourages people to pay through all the content as fast as possible before dropping it for the next game. Now whilst I won’t discount the fact that there were many a hardcore friend of mine who took time off work to reach level 50 in the space of 4 days or so this was by far not the norm with many players taking at least a month to reach max level (I would know this, I was among them). Even then those who did reach max level would usually roll another character straight afterwards to level with the others who were still catching up mostly because the single player lines for each archetype are unique. He then goes on to peddle his ideal solution and then decries that the monetization scheme is the ultimate factor in deciding a MMORPGs success.
This is as far from the truth I’ve seen anyone get. Anyone who’s played MMORPGs knows that there’s one thing and one thing only that decides whether a game in this genre will be successful or not. That thing is the content.
Of all the failed MMORPGs I’ve played over the years the reason that they struggled can always be tracked back to problems with content. Age of Conan is probably the best example I can think of as it promised a large world, shaped by your actions, with content all the way up to a staggering level 80. This would have been all well and good except the fact that once you hit level 50 there wasn’t any content to speak of until level 80. Warhammer Online had the same issue as people quickly tired of the warzones and many servers locked themselves in a stalemate for the end game PvP, leaving them to turn away. Indeed the biggest problem that SW:TOR had was the fact that the end game content was just so gosh darn accessible, meaning that within the first month or two anyone could see the entire game if they were so inclined.
This was the exact reason why so many people decided to leave SW:TOR when they did. My guild mates and I managed to blast through all the end game raids in just under a week once we were all level 50 thanks to the normal level of difficulty which made the encounters quite easy by end game standards. After that point it’s hard to motivate people to redo content they’ve done before especially when the rewards are only incremental upgrades. Then the only thing left is to grind PvP or flash points in order to get better gear and only the hardcore will keep on doing that after a month or so.
So why does Shokrizade believe that monetization, above all else, is the key to MMORPG success? At the risk of stumbling into ad-hominem territory the reason seems pretty obvious: he’s a self proclaimed expert on virtual economies even though his only experience in economics comes from playing EVE Online (and I’m struggling to verify his claims of leading a 5000 strong corporation in there). It’s then prudent to take what he says with a grain of salt as he has a vested interest in saying things like this, even if they don’t gel so well with reality.
MMORPGs are hard things to create and maintain and it’s a testament to companies like Blizzard and BioWare who’ve managed to actually release one and not go bankrupt in the process. Whilst SW:TOR might be struggling to keep people going so are nearly all MMORPGs, even the mighty World of Warcraft is back to 2008 subscription numbers (is their monetization strategy the problem, Shokrizade?) and that shows just how hard it can be to get people coming back time and time again. The one secret though is the content and there is no doubt that Blizzard has mastered that art and for all it’s successes with the campaign missions BioWare unfortunately missed the mark and they’re paying the price for it now.
It’s scary just how much of my World of Warcraft life mirrored that of your run-of-the-mill addict. At the start everything was good: all my friends were playing and we were all having a blast, whiling away our youth in the fantastical land of Azeroth. Then people started to leave, the ones who couldn’t spare the time at first but as the month went on the nomenclature changed from “I just stopped to playing” to “I’m out” or “I’ve been clean for 2 weeks now!”. Indeed in the years that have followed since my hey days where I was spending 1 day (total play time) out of every 6 in World of Warcraft I’ve found myself relapsing and going back to it whenever an expansion comes out. Strangely enough though whilst the attraction to go back is strong it seems I’m becoming better at saying no.
I kind of missed everything in the Burning Crusade as that was when I found myself destitute, languishing without a guild and without a group of friends I wanted to play with. However Wrath of the Lich King saw me return with meteoric fury, flush with a new group of friends I made through work I lovingly plunged dozens of hours back into the game. It wasn’t the same as the height of my addiction days but then again I had much less time on my hands than I did before so on a relative scale it was probably pretty close. However the same cycle of people leaving and going clean happened again and eventually I found myself leaving the world once again.
I returned for the latest expansion, Cataclysm, for a while and even made my way into some of the high level raids thanks to having some contacts in the right places. However this time around I didn’t last that long before the magic wore off and I realised how long it would take for me to gear up a character to the level I wanted. I haven’t gone back since then as my dedication to reviewing one game per week (only 1 week missed so far!) has overridden any desire I might have had to while away my time in that familiar crack den.
This is a feeling that I believe is shared by many long time World of Warcraft players who have been with the franchise since day 1. It’s hard to believe it but release day was almost 8 years ago and those fresh faced teenagers who started out with this game are now adults with all the fun responsibilities that come along with it. Thus it is not surprising that for the first time in 4 years World of Warcraft’s subscriber base has declined to 9 million. Whilst this is very likely to see a major bump come Mists of Pandaria time they’ve been on the downward slope for a while and that makes you wonder what the future holds for this iconic game.
Ever since I first heard about the latest upcoming expansion I heard in tandem that it was slated to be the last expansion with World of Warcraft bowing out to the upcoming secret MMO dubbed Project Titan. It made sense as the writing appeared to be on the wall with subscriber counts but it seems that Blizzard intends to keep World of Warcraft going for much longer with the expansion pack to follow Mists of Pandaria already in production. Whilst that might seem crazy if you compare the numbers on other MMOs that are widely believed to be successful you can see that Blizzard could easily keep the franchise going with 10~20% of the numbers they have now. Depending on how well Mists of Pandaria does at stemming the attrition rate it may take the release of Project Titan to see the end to World of Warcraft. Even then it might take a year or two before the subscriber count hits danger territory for Blizzard.
I’ve long relegated myself to coming back and playing through each expansion that comes out mostly because the levelling experience, especially since Cataclysm, is one I very much enjoy. I’ll definitely be back for the expansion when it comes out late next month but as for me becoming a long time subscriber again? I can’t see that happening any time soon. In fact I’m not sure that any MMORPG will be able to captivate me in the same way as World of Warcraft did back in the day and from what I can tell I’m not alone in this feeling. Still the nostalgia feeling will be enough to swell their ranks for a time and that may be all Blizzard is looking for.
I’ve played my fair share of Star Wars games over the years. I can remember playing one on my trusty Nintendo Entertainment System which was just your basic platformer but was still enough to keep me captivated way back then (I was 6 at the time). More recently I indulged in the Jedi Knight Academy series of games which, to their credit, were actually quite fun and had a half decent story about them. I did not however get into Star Wars Galaxies, having heard how atrocious it was. Star Wars: The Old Republic however caught my attention from the get go mostly because BioWare was going to be the one developing it. I’ve always enjoyed their RPGs so it follows that their MMORPGs should be no different. Thus I pre-ordered my collector’s edition from Amazon months ago and I’ve been playing it ever since.
SW:TOR puts you 300 years after the events that occurred in the single player game Knights of the Old Republic which is still some 3,500 years prior to the events that take place in the original Star Wars movies. The Sith have returned in full force, retaking their old home of Korriban and re-establishing their Sith order. You then get to decide which faction to play for, The Republic or The Empire, and your choice will drastically change the story that unfolds before you. For reference I was a Jedi Knight base class and choose the Guardian specialization, putting me as a tank/dps. Your choice of advanced class doesn’t appear to influence the story however, just the archetype role you’ll fill.
Character customization is definitely a step above what I’m normally used to seeing in a MMORPG but is still somewhat lower than what you usually find in traditional RPGs. Most of the choices are from pre-set options so whilst it’s unlikely that you’ll find 2 characters that are completely identical there’s a very good chance you’ll notice someone running around with your face at one point, leading to some rather awkward moments. Still there’s enough variation in both your base character model as well as armour types to ensure that you won’t feel like you’re playing in a clone army.
On first impression the graphics of SW:TOR are nothing to write home about, especially when compared to the stunning visuals of some recent RPGs. Still much like World of Warcraft the stylization that has been used throughout the game means that it doesn’t detract from the experience. Of course, as with any MMORPG, graphics usually have to be stepped down in order to cope with the potential for huge numbers of players to be on screen at any one time. Indeed I’ve experienced some slowdown in the more populated areas (<30 people) but for the most part the graphics are the right balance of pretty and performance.
All that being said however some of the environments that are set up within SW:TOR did trigger my sense of awe. The screenshot above was just the first such example of where I stopped in my tracks and just took in the world for a while. It really did make me feel like I was part of something much greater than myself, something where the scale was far beyond just what was being presented to me at the time. However it would all be just simple eye candy if it weren’t for the story that underpins your entire reason for existing in this vast universe.
Now for most traditional MMORPGs the idea of an over-arching story line usually only goes as far as one particular level bracket. I can remember this quite clearly from my time with World of Warcraft where each area would have its own unique story but the connections between them were either tenuous or non-existent. SW:TOR on the other hand has a series of class quests that are in essence the driver for you to go from one planet to another. They’re far from a simple advancement device though as there are many times when you’ll be whisked away from the known planets on your map to other locations, sometimes for hours at a time.
Indeed SW:TOR could very easily be played as a single player RPG for those who’d like another fix of Star Wars goodness but were turned off by the MMORPG title. Sure there’s no escaping the fact that there’s countless “Kill X enemies” or “Gather Y of Z item” kinds of mission in there but should you not be too concerned with levelling as fast as you can they can be, for the most part, skipped entirely. A good chunk of the missions have some kind of unique mechanic or are broken up by enough cut scenes to make them feel a lot less grindy than their counterparts in other MMORPGs. Indeed there were times when I was playing simply because the story was driving me to, not the urge to get to max level and start gearing my character. I can honestly say I’ve never had that in a MMORPG before.
Levelling is actually quite enjoyable and doesn’t feel like a barrier to the real meat of SW:TOR. Unlike most MMORPGs where getting max level takes months of herculean effort you can easily reach max level in around 3 to 4 days played if you put your mind to it. My trip to max level was decidedly more leisurely but even I was able to knock out a max level character in under a month of play. This again reinforces the idea that SW:TOR would in fact make a great single player game that you could play through and be done with afterwards. That is, of course, how they’ll hook you in but I’ll be damned if it isn’t true.
The space missions also serve as a nice break from the usual tedium of questing. They’re something of a point and click adventure with the camera running along a set path with you being free to move around inside it. Initially they’re a walk in the park, especially for experienced gamers, but as you progress there will be ones that will challenge you. Like most things though you’ll eventually overcome the challenge and you’ll have to wait until you pass a certain level before you get another challenging one, but they’re still refreshing if you’ve been questing endlessly for a couple hours.
Your space ship also functions as a melting pot for you and your companions as well as being your transport between questing areas. I think this is probably why the questing in SW:TOR felt so fluid as each planet has a specific level bracket and could be travelled to with very little hassle. It also meant there weren’t any strange transition areas like there are in other MMORPGs when the designers tried to meld say a vast desert with a dense jungle (think Desolace to Feralas in WoW). It’s also quite nice to have the external camp to interact with your companions as their story lines (and potential romances) are quite interesting in themselves.
The experience however is not exactly trouble free. Shown above are two common glitches that I would routinely encounter, the one on the left moreseo than the right. There are quite a few graphical glitches that crop up from time to time but thankfully none of them too severe and are usually temporary. The second one shown above is a more extreme (but hilarious) example of the camera angles for cut scenes going all whacky and sometimes glitching out you or your NPCs armour. Mostly it would be my cape being stuck in my torso, but there’s also been people missing, voice overs not playing and characters not moving their mouths when talking.
There’s also some issues with lag, but not the ones you’d think. Even though BioWare didn’t release SW:TOR in Australia because of lag concerns I routinely get sub 200ms pings to the server, better even than I got in World of Warcraft (before I started using a tunnel, though). However there were still a few occasions when the server and my client would get out of sync, sending my character into a flurry of stepping forward only to be slingshot back. This would continue for up to 30 seconds at a time making for some rather frustrating moments.
PVP is something of a mixed bag at the moment thanks to the end game version of it still being a work in progress. You can participate in PVP from level 10 and currently everyone is thrown into the same bracket together. Everyone’s stats are boosted up to the highest level participant however so you can be somewhat competitive even when you’re just starting out. There are 3 different scenarios (capture and hold, timed race to the end and, in essence, football) so there’s not a whole lot of variety and it does start to feel repetitive after an hour or so. Still you’ll receive credits, experience and tokens towards PVP gear for participating so it’s well worth doing them, even if PVP doesn’t interest you at all.
The end game PVP appears to be an attempt to copy the ideas that Warhammer: Age of Reckoning brought to the table with Realm vs Realm PVP. There’s one world called Illum that’s basically up for grabs for either side should they want to have it. You can capture it by holding objectives although it’s not entirely clear what you get for doing so. This would be great except that currently open world PVP doesn’t award valor (PVP rank points) and there doesn’t appear to be any kind of bonus for holding Illum. Thus the end game PVP is reduced to people sitting at the objectives long enough to complete their dailies and then leaving, usually not even attempting to engage each other. I won’t complain about the free loot but it does feel somewhat pointless as there’s no reason to be there than for the dailies.
Compared to other recent MMORPG launches Star Wars: The Old Republic really stands out as one where the developers did their homework and worked hard to deliver an experience that was on par with those that were currently on offer. Sure its not as complete or as polished as others are now but for a first release it’s actually quite phenomenal, easily beating the initial release experience I’ve had with nearly all other MMORPGs. There’s still a lot of things where they could improve but overall the current game is more than enough to cement their position as a solid contender and I can see myself continuing to play it for a good couple months after this review.
The question many people ask is though, will this take the crown as MMORPG king away from World of Warcraft? I don’t think it will, but not because of any fault with the game itself. All the other WoW killers out there were fundamentally flawed at launch, usually lacking content or sufficient polish. World of Warcraft is the opiate for the MMORPG masses and the only ones capable of taking it down are Blizzard themselves and indeed it looks like they will with Diablo III and the mysterious Project Titan. SW:TOR however is a strong contender to be second place to them, and not just the distant second that many have been before it.
Star Wars: The Old Republic managed to re-ignite that same sense of passion, wonder and fulfilment that I first felt all those years ago when I made my first tenuous steps into the world of MMORPGs. It really is a wonderful feeling going through a new world for the first time, especially one that’s as rich as SW:TOR. I can’t see myself getting as addicted as I did back in my MMORPG heydays but that’s probably just me getting older more than it is the game being any less addictive. For Star Wars fans, MMORPGers and RPG fans alike SW:TOR is definitely worth checking out, even if you ignore that whole online part.
Star Wars: The Old Republic is available right on exclusively on PC for $62 which includes 1 month of game time. Game was played entirely on PC with around 5 days (120 hours) of total play time and reaching the level cap, 50.