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).
Unquestionably the Internet has drastically altered my behaviour in many ways. In the beginning it was merely a curiosity, something I was able to lord over the other kids in the playground because I was one of the precious few that had it and would become instant friends with many who wanted to see it. As I grew older and my interests broadened it became my primary resource for finding information, leading me to investigate many wild things that I would not have paid any attention to otherwise. Most recently it became my platform for communicating with the wider world whilst also elevating my career to places that I couldn’t of dreamed of.
In short, I feel the Internet has been good to me.
Looking from the outside in however would probably paint a much different picture. My near fanatical obsession for my current object of desire often led me down destructive paths, one of which was my World of Warcraft addiction would could not exist without an Internet connection. My desire for information often leads me down paths that aren’t relevant for anything past satisfying my curiosity, filling my head with facts that I will likely never find a use for. The Internet has also chronicled some of my worst moments and whilst they’re not exactly common knowledge they serve as a reminder of the parts of myself that I’m not particularly proud of.
However whilst it would be easy to lay the blame directly at the tool which enabled this behaviour, an easy thing to do given its current ease of use and pseudo-anonymity that enables everyone’s Inner Fuckwad, I can’t say that these same things would happen absent the Internet. There are many, many people that advocate cutting down or doing away with the Internet (or anything, realistically) will lead you onto untold benefits but as a Verge reporter found these effects are usually only temporary:
It’s a been a year now since I “surfed the web” or “checked my email” or “liked” anything with a figurative rather than literal thumbs up. I’ve managed to stay disconnected, just like I planned. I’m internet free.
And now I’m supposed to tell you how it solved all my problems. I’m supposed to be enlightened. I’m supposed to be more “real,” now. More perfect.
But instead it’s 8PM and I just woke up. I slept all day, woke with eight voicemails on my phone from friends and coworkers. I went to my coffee shop to consume dinner, the Knicks game, my two newspapers, and a copy of The New Yorker. And now I’m watching Toy Story while I glance occasionally at the blinking cursor in this text document, willing it to write itself, willing it to generate the epiphanies my life has failed to produce.
I’m not going to say that the Internet isn’t an enabler for some particularly bad behaviours, my use of it is a great testament to that, but the issues that cause can always be traced back to the person. For me my WoW addiction was an escape from the crazy world I had put myself into, working 3 different jobs while studying full time at university. In my escape I found some control and, unfortunately, also power over other people that was incredibly intoxicating. Only when that power dwindled and I was left with no one else to turn to did I start to realise how destructive it had become and I ended up leaving that part of me behind for several years.
Maybe we need that time away in order to get clarity on those destructive behaviours that we associate with specific tools. My honeymoon was decidedly devoid of technology, even though I smuggled my laptop along with me, and after the first couple days of adjustment I felt oddly liberated. Whilst the revelations I came to at that time weren’t about my use of the Internet (indeed this was several years after I dreged myself out of that rather dark place) I certainly felt I had a better understanding of how I interacted with those things that I was absent from. Perhaps then instead of advocating giving up something completely we should take time constrained breaks, lest we establish the same bad habits using alternative means.
That is definitely something I can attest to as many of my life changing decisions have been made when I’ve been in situations that were decidedly different from the norm, not from giving something up completely. Indeed I feel abandoning something completely often means giving up part of yourself, your identity. Of course there are times when this is appropriate but for something as benign as Internet use I don’t believe that giving it up will solve your problems. However seconding yourself away from it for a time might just give you the insight needed to rectify the worst parts of it and broaden your perspective on the issues at hand.
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.
The new year is upon us and its a good a time as any to take stock of the year that just past. 2011 was quite a year for gaming with several hotly anticipated block buster releases hitting the shelves, some mere weeks after each other. It was also something of a coming of age for this blog in terms of game reviews, seeing myself being flown up to Sydney to preview Modern Warfare 3 and getting my very first ever review copy of a game. Now with the year over it’s time for me to put my vote in for game of the year and whilst I’d love to say it was a close competition it really was anything but.
All in all 2011 saw me complete 22 games total (there were far more played, see here for an explanation as to why they didn’t get reviewed) and here’s an exhaustive list of the reviews in chronological order:
As I was creating this list it struck me just how mixed this list of games is. Whilst the dominant platform is still PC for me there’s 2 other platforms in there and their respective releases both felt right at home on their platform of choice. The dominant genre here would appear to be FPS although just going off the usual 8~10 hour playtime rule for said genre I dare say that the vast majority of my gaming time in 2011 was spent on RPGs or games with a RPG element to them. Although if I’m honest I have blown quite a lot of my time recently in Modern Warfare 3′s multiplayer and a heck of a lot more in Star Wars: The Old Republic (review coming soon!).
Before I dive into the game of the year however there’s a few games that deserve recognition either for their accomplishments or outright failures.
Gemini Rue is by far the most underrated game of the bunch. It’s been well received critically both here and elsewhere but it’s still a title most people would not know if they heard it. I’d say this was because of its lack of a release on Steam when it first came out (which has since changed) even though it had a digital distribution channel. Still the game is expertly crafted, bringing up all kinds of nostalgia whilst delivering a story that I really cared about, thoroughly exploiting all aspects of its chosen pixel art medium. Whilst it might not make the cut for my game of the year it would definitely get my vote for independent game of the year, hands down.
For most over-hyped/biggest let down of the year the title can go to none other than Duke Nukem Forever. I was thinking about making it a tie between said title and Rage but in defense of id’s latest release it at least had some redeeming features in the engine and game play. Duke Nukem Forever is unfortunately nothing like that being little more than a generic shooter that rode the Duke brand as hard as it could. Indeed it’s the definition of a critic proof release as for Gearbox it was a commercial success despite it’s woeful critical reception. I’ll be honest this is the only game that I played through to the end just so I could review it as for any other title I would’ve just stopped playing and not bothered to review it.
So what then is my game of the year for 2011? The answer is Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
As a game Human Revolution really is something amazing. The graphics are simply superb with it rightly taking the title away from Crysis as being the game to stress test your new rig with. That’d all be for naught if the game wasn’t good but suffice to say it’s brilliant. The plot and characters are engrossing, there are wide and varied game mechanics ensuring that no 2 playthroughs are the same and it has rekindled that feeling that everyone had when they first played the original Deus Ex. Put simply Deus Ex: Human Revolution sets the bar for the FPS/RPG hybrid genre and does it with an almost effortless elegance. It’s fitting then that it received my highest score review score of the year, putting it second only to StarCraft 2.
With 2011 now done and dusted its time to look forward into 2012 and the games it holds for us. It’s already shaping up to be a fantastic year for gaming with games like Diablo 3 and Mass Effect 3 due out early in the year. It will also be the year when I ramp up my game review efforts significantly on here as I’ve got plans to make my console reviews better (and do more of them), dabbling with the idea of producing video reviews and overall playing more games so that I can do more reviews. In the end that’s what its all about, well that and my not-so-secret desire to be a games journalist…
I’m a long time MMORPG player, coming up to almost 7 years if I count correctly. I haven’t been playing any recently since I’ve had so many other games to play (and 3 still awaiting their turn) but whenever there’s a drought of good game releases I’ll usually find myself back in World of Warcraft or the new MMO of the day. During that time I believe I’ve got a good feel for the general MMORPG community as I’ve been involved in nearly every aspect of those games, from the lowly casual just looking for an hour of fun to the 3AM hardcore raider who’s friends question his sanity.
One of the bugbears of the MMORPG community has always been that of players with more in real life (IRL) cash buying their way past parts of the game that less financially well off people have had to slog through. It’s a genuine gripe as it serves to lessen the value of their in game achievements if someone can just slap down their credit card and get the same thing. Most MMORPGs strictly forbid any form of real money trading because of this, usually banning people from selling in game items and currency and shutting down accounts that are caught doing so. There are a few that condone it in a limited sense, like EVE Online that allows users to sell game time (keeping all the money in CCP’s pockets), but they are in the minority.
You’d think being a long time MMORPG player that I’d be with the community on this one but I’ll have to admit to using a real money trading (RMT) service in the past. You see back when I was just starting out in EVE Online I wasn’t terribly familiar with the games rather ruthless take on death. For the most part I had stayed in high sec space, running PVE missions and slowly building my way up to one of the sexier battleships. I eventually got it and started running missions with it and that’s when I was introduced to the world of high sec piracy. Not long after getting my shiny Megathron I lost it, along with all the cash I had plunged into it. Angry and frustrated I turned to the online ISK sellers in order to get myself back to where I was, shelling out $25 real dollars to get myself back on my feet. I went back there once more in order to get myself ahead again, but I haven’t used any RMT services since then.
To me the fact that a player can pay a token amount to get ahead doesn’t lessen the achievement any more for me, mostly because I know that despite the game developer’s best efforts it still goes on in every MMORPG. No matter how many characters they ban or currency they remove from the world there will always be a legion in waiting, ready to service those who’s credit card is more readily accessible than their free time. The best thing game developers can do in this instance then is to make sure that there are approved channels for doing so within the game so that players can easily tell who’s bought their way into success. Driving it underground just ensures that the game developers are missing out on some potential revenue, whilst the players still suffer in the same way.
You can imagine then how disappointed I was when I read how naive the World of Warcraft community was being when the release of a new pet, the Guardian Cub, that was tradeable in game sparked widespread concern that RMT was coming:
The other, major, thing which sets the Guardian Cub apart? It’s tradable. Once you’ve purchased it, you can on-sell the little guy to other characters, in exchange for in-game gold or items – and you can set the price. Sticking with the “one-time-only” theme, once you’ve handed the Guardian Cub over, he will be added to the recipient’s Companions list and cannot be re-traded again later. “Be sure to choose a master wisely,” warns Blizzard.
Costing the now-standard US$10, but tradable for almost anything you’d like, the big-eyed Guardian Cub is being heralded as the Beginning of the End – opening the door to real money trading in World of Warcraft.
Realistically you can say that RMT is already here for World of Warcraft as a quick Google search for “WoW gold” will net you dozens of sites ready, willing and able to switch out your cold hard cash for in game currency. The only difference this new pet makes to that equation is there’s now a semi-legitimate way of doing it even though most people who want the pet will just go straight to the Blizzard store to get it. Really if you’re worried about Blizzard bringing an official RMT system to World of Warcraft you should really open your eyes to the reality of the situation, it’s already happening, it’s just not Blizzard who’s doing it.
I’m not saying that RMT doesn’t have any effect at all on MMORPGs but their overall impact is realistically quite low. RMT has been around for as long as MMORPGs have been and many players will go their entire in-game lives without even noticing the impact that it has on their game of choice. Officially sanctioned methods are far and away better than their black market alternatives and opposing them is akin to sticking your fingers in your ears and pretending it doesn’t happen already. It does happen, it will continue to happen and you’d be best served by a supported method, whether you believe that or not.
I’ve played my fair share of MMORPGs since my first introduction to this genre way back in 2004. After falling from the dizzying heights that I scaled within World of Warcraft I set about playing my way through several similar games only to either find them half done, unplayable or have their community boil down to just the hardcore in little over a month. There are only two MMORPGs that I’ve ever gone back to after an extended period of absence: World of Warcraft and EVE online. Both had characteristics that begged me to come back after I had left them for good and both have continued to reinvent themselves over the course of their long lifetimes. Today I want to take you through World of Warcraft’s latest revision, the Cataclysm expansion.
This expansion signals the return of Deathwing, one of the dragon aspects of Azeroth who’s first appearance in Blizzard’s Warcraft line of games dates all the way back to Warcraft 2: Beyond the Dark Portal. His emergence from the depths of Deepholm have torn the world asunder, laying waste to much of the original world and changing the landscape of Azeroth permanently. This expansion differs significantly from the previous 2 in that it did not add a whole new world, it reinvented the old whilst adding a few new zones. This allowed the developers the opportunity to redo the entire old world in order to make the 0-60 levelling experience more fluid as well as allowing everyone the opportunity to use their flying mounts in the old world. This is in addition to the complete overhaul of every class, 2 new races, a dozen new dungeons, 4 new raid encounters, a new secondary profession, rework of the stat system and an overhaul of the badge based reward system.
I had a few choices when it came to exploring this new old world that Blizzard had set before me. Reports from friends told me the levelling experience was quite nice and the new starting zones were of similar quality to that of the Death Knight area, long praised for its intensely immersive experience. Still I had 2 level 80 characters ready, willing and able to experience the new content right away and logging onto one of them I was instantly greeted by some of my long time World of Warcraft buddies. The decision to level my 80 Shaman had been made for me before I knew it and I set about blasting my way to 85.
The first thing I noticed was the vast improvements to the game experience that Blizzard have added since the last time I played. First there’s a quest helper that not only tracks all your quests it also points you in the right direction and marks out an area for you to find the mobs or items required to complete it. Additionally the character panel has seen a significant revamp with many of the stats now providing insight into what they mean, like the amount of hit required to not miss a certain level target. There’s also lots of tiny little additions that make the game experience just that much better, like the little icon that hovers above your head when you get 5 stacks of Maelstrom Weapon as a shaman something which required a whole other mod to achieve. The revamped raid/party bar is also quite good and a testament to how necessary the Grid mod was before Blizzard rolled their own. There are still a few things missing that I still consider necessary like a damage meter and a loot browser but overall Blizzard has shown just how closely they watch the community and listen to what their needs are so that they can include those things into the main game.
The levelling experience from 80 to 85 was incredibly enjoyable, probably the best experience I’ve had out of any of the previous releases. I was never lost for somewhere to quest as part of my usual trips back to Ogrimmar there would always be a quest on the Warchief’s board that would send me to a level appropriate area. Whilst this has left me with a couple areas left uncompleted (like Vashj’ir and Uldum) it did mean that I didn’t spend time on lower level quests that yield significantly lower experience. The usual line is that the levelling time from 80 to 85 was supposed to be the same as 70 to 80 but I found that it was significantly less, probably about half or so. I think this can be attributed to the random dungeon system they added in a while back with the added bonus that instead of having to do long quest chains to get those juicy dungeon quests nearly all dungeons have quest givers right at the start.
Like any of the Blizzard titles what really got me was the depth and breadth of the lore behind each of the areas. Whilst many of the quests are you’re standard kill X of those, gather Y of these type of encounters there are quite a few that really bring you into the world that Blizzard has created. The screenshot above is from one such encounter where after leading a band of goblins up the hill I’ve finally met with Alexstrasza who soon after takes me on a direct assault against Deathwing himself. There’s also extensive use of the phasing¹ technique giving you that feeling of being the hero of the world, even though you’re in a world of heroes. This lead me to follow many long quest chains to their completion as I just had to know what happened next, spending hours battling various foes and gobbling up the quest text at every opportunity.
The end game has improved significantly as well. Back in Ulduar Blizzard began experimenting with teleporters that would take you a fair way to the part of the instance you wanted to be at. They continued this in Icecrown Citadel and they have made their way into every instance I’ve played thus far. The instances themselves are also quite entertaining with new boss mechanics and some instances even having in game cinematics. Sure you’re over them once you’ve seen them for the 5th time but it’s a nice touch and goes a long way to revamp the old dungeon grind.
I’ve spent the last month playing through the level 80 to 85 content and I’m still not lost for new things to do in Cataclysm. It seems every other day I find myself in a new dungeon I hadn’t yet done or a new section of a quest area I hadn’t yet discovered and that’s just what keeps me coming back day after day. I’ve still yet to dive into the revamped old world in the form of levelling a new character but from reports I’m hearing from both long time veterans and first time players the experience is as enjoyable as my level 80 to 85 experience. So for those of you thinking about reactivating your old account or for anyone who’s had the slightest inclination to play World of Warcraft you won’t go wrong by starting now in the new world that was torn asunder in Cataclysm.
World of Warcraft: Cataclysm is available right now on PC for$39.95. Game was played over the course of the last month on the Oceanic Dreadmaul server as a Enhancement Shaman.
¹Phasing, in World of Warcraft, is when part of a world is in a sense instanced. This allows them to show a different world to different players which is usually used to show the effect of a quest on the world around you. The example given is that if you get 10 wooden planks to repair someone’s house it will in fact be repaired. However anyone who hasn’t yet done that quest will see that house as still damaged.
Over the course of this blog’s life I’ve made references to the fact that I’m a long time World of Warcraft player. For the past 6 years I’ve been an on again, off again player frequently returning to Blizzard’s flagship MMORPG for a fix of their latest offerings. Having spent the last month or so playing through the latest Cataclysm expansion I was drafting up a review in my head when I realised that in order to do a proper review of the current content I needed to give a little background on my experience with this game. Today I want to take you through the last 6 years of my life with Blizzard’s iconic game in anticipation for tomorrow’s review of the Cataclysm expansion.
Going back 6 years puts me as a young university student who’s been keenly devouring any and every detail he could find about Blizzard’s upcoming game release. Although I was still at home out in the country with my only connection to the Internet being a share 56k dial-up I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the game. As luck would have it I managed to win myself a spot in the coveted close beta and managed to convince my boss to download all the client patches for me. I spent a few good weeks smashing my way through the beta as a paladin called Arathar before it was closed down in preparation for the full release.
The day of the release was quite torturous for my friends and I as we’d been out quite late the night before and only managed to sneak in about 4 hours sleep before we hit up the local games store for our copies of the game. We hadn’t pre-ordered the game so getting in early was imperative and thankfully we were able to score a copy each before we all went our separate ways to begin playing. The experience that awaited us was, to put it bluntly, quite tragic as the servers caved under the load of thousands of people trying to login especially on the chosen Australian server Blackrock. We resigned ourselves to switch to another server (Gorgonnash) and began levelling in earnest, most of us hitting level 10 before calling it a night. This is where Nalafang was born and still resides today.
The next few months were an interesting time for our rag-tag bunch of MMORPGers. We spent many hours questing together, running what dungeons we could and basically just soaking up the world that Blizzard had created for us. Along the way many of my friends started dropping out, usually around the level 40~50 area where it really started to get a bit heavy on the time investment. I continued on and started gathering a group of friends with whom I’d run dungeons with almost daily. After a month or so of this my small team of dungeoneers reformed into a bigger and better guild, Aureus Dawn. A couple weeks later saw our GM drop out and had me assume the position giving me my first taste of what it meant to lead a group of people through a virtual world.
Things just kept getting better as my runs got a reputation for actually finishing content and magically dropping one world epic at least once a week. I started talking with other guild leaders and eventually managed to find another 3 to group with for our first attempt at the first ever raid in WoW: Molten Core. Our first run didn’t see any bosses down but it wasn’t long until we were smashing our way through content and our 4 guild tag team had to split into 2 separate raids to continue on. As time passed the lines between the two separate guilds blurred significantly and I was called into an IM meeting between my officers and the other guild. They proposed that we should merge under a single banner and go ahead with running our raid completely independently. The idea was met with resounding support and they then surprised me by nominating me as the guilds new GM, placing me at the top of the food chain in a 40 man strong raid team. I was elated and soon after Ascendance was formed and we began hitting Molten Core in earnest.
Soon after the new raid instance, Blackwing Lair, was released and our guild decided to have a crack at it. From memory we did end up making it past the first boss after a couple attempts but progress stalled after that. The same fate also hit us in Molten Core as we struggled to down the final boss, stymying our progress in other raids. Inevitably this began to wear on people and personality clashes began to escalate from small fights into guild sized dramas that threatened to tear the guild apart. Thanks to the piecemeal nature by which the guild was formed there were several loyal factions and once one of the faction leaders decided to go the rest of them would follow. This lead to the demise of Ascendance as a guild who ultimately merged in with another bigger guild to continue running. Times were good there until I developed a large amount of contempt for the leadership and ended up causing dramas of my own, eventually leaving them for one of my long time friends (and previous 4 guild raiding buddy) guild, Dark Ronin.
I found a good place there for the longest time, finding my niche as the Rogue class leader and spending many hours pouring over my DPS logs figuring out how to be the best I could be. Eventually however the same traits that made those people elect me to the position of leadership previously caused me to develop the same level of contempt for the leadership as I had previously. I hadn’t been enjoying the game and decided that I needed a fresh start on another server. I found myself a top raiding guild, repsecced my paladin to holy and transferred servers. This lasted for all of a month before I quit entirely, vowing to leave WoW behind forever and never giving it a second glance.
About a year passed before I even thought about WoW again when I saw that the first ever expansion was due to be released soon. Remembering the fond times I had had levelling I thought that it couldn’t hurt to give the game a go again. I spent a little time levelling my rogue in the new areas and enjoyed it for the most part. I even managed to meet up with an old friend, Scottdasmall, who was a long time guild member of mine. I eventually joined his guild and played casually for a couple months, getting both my characters to 70. After that however I just couldn’t get hooked like I did last time and resigned to put the game down again but not with the same disdain as I did before. It wasn’t long however until the next expansion was released and I started looking at WoW again.
This time however I had friends I had met outside of work to play with. Problem was they were Horde players and this was long before faction transfers were available. If I wanted to play with them I’d have to level another character. Thankfully this was just after the Refer-a-Friend scheme came out, making the journey to 60 much quicker. I rolled myself another toon and levelled up with them so that I could play alongside them. Wrath of the Lich King made it extremely easy to get into raids with almost anyone allowing me to gear up my character just like I had in days gone by. Eventually my new found guildies wanted to start raiding in earnest and I joined them, spending countless hours in Ulduar and eventually making it up to the final boss before the raid fell apart.
I dropped the game again at that point for a good 6 months although I kept a much closer eye on what was happening whilst I was away. I eventually came back for a few months to play through the Icecrown Citadel instance, even gearing myself up with an exceptional amount of loot from there, but when I saw that Catalcysm was on the horizon I gave it up once again figuring that anymore effort would be almost for naught very soon. About a month ago I reactivated my account after purchasing the collector’s edition of Cataclysm and have been playing it ever since.
There is of course so much more to this story but in the interests of berevity I’ll spare you the details, at least for now. Needless to say that World of Warcarft has been a very big part of my life for the better part of a decade and will continue to be as long as it’s around. This post was more to show you how I’ve been through almost every aspect of the game, from the high points of end game raiding, to the darkest times of guild dramas and finally ending up here today where I enjoy the game in a way that I’d never envisioned when I first set foot in this virtual world. I’ve tried nearly every other MMORPG out there but none of them has kept me coming back in the way that World of Warcraft does, and that’s a testament to just how good Blizzard is at creating a captivating and engaging world.
Ah the cloud, it seems to be the catch all for any problem that you might have had with your computer since the day it was invented. Need your files wherever you go? Put it in the cloud! Want to sync your personal data across all your devices? Put it in the cloud! Does your hair not have enough body and lift? Get some better shampoo, since the cloud probably isn’t the answer to that one. Still there are some interesting ideas that just so happen to be cloud based and one of those, that I’ve covered a couple times previously, is OnLive. A curious service that aims to bring high end gaming to those on a budget, all for the low low cost of $14.95 per month (plus game costs).
Now whilst I haven’t been a huge fan of the idea I did muse that it had its place, albeit in a somewhat niche capacity which limited its appeal. Still this hasn’t stopped them from inking deals with big names like British Telecommunications to bring their product to a much wider audience. From what I’ve seen there’s still a significant amount of work required before they hit all the platforms they were talking about (computing appliances, like the iPad) and there’s still some issues they won’t be able to innovate away (input lag for instance). Given time and their obvious sway with investors I’m sure any problem that can be solved will be solved eventually, hopefully driving up the market adoption they’ll need to keep their heads above water.
There really hasn’t been that much said about OnLive in recent months, most because the initial trials have been done and now the only thing people are interested in is when they can give it a go. Turns out that might be sooner than we thought, thanks to this little tidbit of news:
Smart move by OnLive today. The controversial streaming game service is offering to waive the $14.95 monthly access fee for a full year (originally it was 3 months) for anyone who enthusiastically pre-registered early — many of you we suspect. It’s even tossing in a coupon for a free game when you register for the offer. The only catch seems to be the credit card required to complete registration as proof that you’re over 18. If you didn’t pre-register then tough luck, no offer for you. But at least you can take comfort in knowing that a small army of gamers will be taking the service to task unencumbered by membership fees. In other words, we’ll know right quickly if OnLive can live up to its “ultra high-performance” streaming gameplay on entry-level PCs and Macs.
I’d previously criticized OnLive for attempting to charge for their service from the get go, saying it would stifle adoption rates. Whilst this offer is really only valid for a very small subset of people (read: those who can actually get the darn service) it does mean there will be 25,000 people on the service in its early days functioning as free beta testers. The offer of a free game confirms this since that means everyone will have at least something to play on the service for their free 12 months. It will be interesting to see what the retention rates will be like after the initial 12 months, since I’m pretty sure that if OnLive isn’t up to par it will be dropped completely when they start asking for your credit card.
My assessment of OnLive being suited to “casual, city dwelling gamers” still seems to ring true 4 months on and when coupled with some recent developments I’m even more sure of it. Whilst I’m aghast to point to the iPad as a potential source of innovation (ugh I feel dirty already) the casual gamer, to whom the OnLive service would be highly appropriate, is in my opinion much more likely to have a device like the iPad. The reasoning behind this is simple, for most casual games they don’t need a high end machine and most casuals would rather use a device like an iPad or netbook since they’re cheaper and far more portable. The iPad is the more likely of the mostly thanks to the brand power that Apple commands and the fact that it has been marketed directly as a casual computing device. If you then also consider that those who are buying a product like that are more likely to have the disposable income required to pay for such a service then the iPad becomes a pretty powerful gaming device for those that like to game but don’t want to bother messing around with a full sized machine.
I really hadn’t considered this viewpoint until I came across a recent article about one of OnLive’s competitors, Gaikai, who was mentioned in the same breath as World of Warcraft running on the iPad. Now whilst that might just seem like a pointless waste of time (and in fact I can’t confirm that it actually works) its actually quite a smart move by Gaikai. You see of the 12 million-ish subscribers to World of Warcraft the vast majority of them would identify themselves as casual players¹. For them playing on an iPad would probably be quite preferable to sitting on the computer and the bonus would be that they could play all the other games they have on there as well. So whilst OnLive might still be a niche, they might just have had a huge gust of wind put in their sails by Apple.
For me personally I’ll probably never have a use for a service like this. I get far too much enjoyment out of building up a really good gaming rig and then putting it through its paces, savouring the moments when I can crank all the slider bars up to “EXTREME”. Still I’m beginning to realise that even though a market might not yet exist for something there’s the potential for someone to create it, and OnLive seems to be doing a good job of developing theirs. Time will tell if they have enough staying power to be the best and fend off their imitators, but that’s what capitalism is all about right?
Now I wonder how long it will take them to release it in Australia…. I’m not going to hold my breath over that one.
¹ I tried to find a good source on this as I remember a survey being done some time ago showing the breakdown of play times and amount of content completed. From memory it was something on the order of 6% of players identifying as hardcore players and the rest identifying with something along the lines of casual, semi-casual or casual hardcore. Doing some quick numbers there are approximately 6100 guilds that have “finished” the current content patch (I.E. defeated the last boss in the current endgame encounter) which gives you about 153,000 players I’d consider “hardcore”, which is about 1.3% of the total population. That’s a wild guess though and should be taken as such.
It’s been just on 5 months since I took it upon myself to start reviewing some of the more well known gaming titles and for the most part its been pretty enjoyable. Up until about a month ago I was able to play my way through an A list title every week or two and usually got the review out the following Monday morning. They’re great blog fodder as it’s something that I’ve been passionate about for many years and they’re probably some of the easiest writing I’ve ever done. Casting an eye back over them though I see that for the most part my reviews are overwhelmingly positive with no game scoring below an 8 out of 10 and most criticisms are forgiven rather quickly. After a while I began to hope for a really bad game to cross my path so I could slam it on my blog, just for something different.
After actually seeking a bad game out it all became clear why I’d rarely ever review one, I just can’t finish the bastards.
Take for instance Bayonetta. If you’re in the business of knowing about games you would’ve likely heard of it a long time ago as the new IP title from the famous Devil May Cry creator Hideki Kamiya which managed to achieve the coveted 40/40 score from Japanese gaming magazine Famitsu. I’d heard about it a long time before the first review came out and was intrigued by the buzz that was surrounding this little known game and ended up buying myself a copy about a week after it came out. After coming off a high of finishing Assassin’s Creed II I was ready, willing and able to sink my teeth into another blockbuster title. What followed however was a cheezy, hyper-sexualized game with an impossibly proportioned librarian nymph who’s battle suit is made from her own hair which she uses to smite angels. I’ve never been much of a fan of hack and slash games but I was willing to give the game a go considering its extremely glowing reviews but after about 4 hours of game play I just couldn’t really force myself to continue playing. Sure I wanted to get my monies worth (I just paid for the equivalent of 5 movie tickets for 4 hours of entertainment, geeze) but in the end Bayonetta sits next to my PS3 gathering dust, begging me to put it out of its misery.
That’s not the only example either. In fact the majority of games that I’ve come across recently have been rather sub par when compared to the first quarters releases. Here’s a list of the games I’ve tried to play and had to put down for one reason or another:
The end result of all this? I caved and restarted my World of Warcraft subscription. I was instantly hooked as things that used to take hours to get organised and completed now take less than 20 minutes and it seems my dreams of good loot raining from the sky have come true. Its so easy to get gratification that I instantly dropped any idea of powering through any of the 4 titles I mentioned in favour of spending some quality time with my little hunter avatar. I feel infinitely dirty for doing so, but it’s the good kind of dirty.
It really goes to show just how good the first couple months of this year was for us gamers and looking back over all my reviews I stand by all the scores I gave out. It’s disappointing to not be able to write a review of a good game every other week but when I just can’t bring myself to finish one it tells me that it’s probably not deserving of a review, even a bad one. I’ve got high hopes of writing another good review soon (Just Cause 2 is looking like a prime candidate) but until then I’m going to go wallow in my addiction to World of Warcraft once again.n