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August 18, 2005

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VIDEO GAME REVIEWS
by Glenn Given

World of Warcraft

Blizzard Entertainment

****

Blizzardís MMO (massively multi-player online game), World of Warcraft, has received Game of the Year, Editorís Choice or Best RPG/MMO awards from more than a dozen prominent industry magazines, and has a 100 percent fresh rating on Rottentomatoes.com, an online review aggregator. WoW has been touted as the most accessible, enjoyable and addictive MMO to date.

Building on the success of their lauded real-time strategy titlesWarcraft (as well as Warcraft 2 and 3), Blizzardís WoW connects players from across the globe in the richly developed fantasy realm of Azeroth. There is a J.R.R. Tolkeinesque back story, and you are involved in the conflict between the noble Alliance and the savage Horde. Suffice to say, Humans, Gnomes, Dwarves and Elves really, really, really donít like Orcs, Trolls, Tauren (think minotaurs) and The Undead. A lot of this will strike you as just another high-fantasy story, but there is a difference.

Not only is the world of World of Warcraft beautifully presented by one of the game industryís most acclaimed art departments, but the traditional fantasy tropes have been tweaked ever so slightly to keep them pulsing. The Bad Guys arenít callously evil warmongers, and the Good Guys arenít flawlessly noble paragons. In WoW good and evil are terms relative to which side of the war you are fighting on. To half of the world, the society of Orcs and trolls is a brutish, marauding, blood-thirsty threat intent on wiping away everything in its path. But to a Horde player, itís a centuries-old culture steeped in honor and savage nobility, struggling for freedom from the tyranny of the Alliance and the corrupting evil of its former demonic ďallies.Ē

Yeah itís a rich world, and not just for the player but for Blizzard as well.

The success of World of Warcraft is undeniable. Just look at the numbers. WoW currently boasts a population equal to Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and half of Rhode Island combined. It is the number-two MMO in the world with 22 percent of the market share; it is bested only by Lineage 2, which may very well have all of South Korea playing. And they just launched in the notoriously video-game-hungry Singapore (pop 4,425,720, over 60 percent having internet access) where previous Blizzard games gained such popularity that one could buy STARCRAFT- and WARCRAFT-branded foods. With 3.5 million (and rapidly growing) denizens since its inception in November 2004 WoW deserves to have its own senators, or a few congressmen at least.

To localize it a bit more letís put it like this. If we do a little admittedly fuzzy math (as exact numbers of subscribers and an accurate count of game-capable computers in America are hard to come by), it turns out that one out of 233, or about 1 percent of every home computer owner in America plays World of Warcraft. It would be a safe bet that at least 750 southern New Hampshire residents play for at least five hours a week. Look around you; that groggy, eye-rubbing IT technician, heís an Undead Warlock. The college girl in the cafť, yeah, sheís a Dwarven Paladin. Me? Iím a Human Priest named Poirot, bent on wiping out the Gnoll and bandit population of Westfall and the Elwynn Forest every morning from 6-8 a.m.

What the hell am I doing every morning? Why arenít I coming into work early or writing a novel or at least making a decent breakfast? Well, after my newborn son wakes me up at the crack of 4 a.m., I figure, since Iím up anyway Iíll log a few hours into my character. Poirot slays cutpurses, explores the land and generally helps out with quests ó missions given by A.I. characters ó as I build up her tailoring skills and save up for a sweet set of pantaloons. Occasionally sheíll get a group of warriors, mages and rouges together (usually late-night players from the west coast) to go smack some unlucky Horde players around a bit. Then my wife wakes up, I pretend I donít play this much and I merrily head to the office. And I havenít even joined a guild (an in-game player association) which, so Iím told, only intensifies oneís commitment.

It is, no joke, a digital drug ó but thatís a forthcoming article.

WoW is a triumph of design, execution, marketing and play. This amazingly complicated virtual world has satisfied millions of players and sped smoothly forward with nary a burp of technical issues. The Blizzard staff is helpful, their design team is continually pouring out content and the game community spans class and ethnicity and gender in itís devotion.

Check it out:

If you act fast you can pick up a 14-day free trial in this monthís issue of PC Gamer or CGW (Computer Graphics World) on magazine stands now.

Gobs of info and tantalizing screens are available at worldofwarcraft.com

Loads of intriguing sociological statistics are available at blogs.parc.com/playon and at nickyee.com/daedalus and an amazing ongoing discuission of the implications of virtual world gaming can be found at: terranova.blogs.com.