Thursday, March 01, 2007

World of Warcraft sucks... in. I've started playing, partly because I'm playing with Nihilix, and partly because, well, I just wanted to see what it was like these days.

I've played a lot of City of Heroes the past couple of years, and I was pining for a fantasy setting that I could play cooperatively. Oblivion is neat, and I will get back to playing it when the expansion ships (at least, I think I will), but what I want is Diablo III. Since that's not happening right now (although the Median 2008 mod is really tempting me to re-install one of the 4 or 5 copies of D2 that I own), I'm trying out WoW.

It really does suck you in. There's the character progression, of course, but the big thing is the acquisition of stuff, including crafting, and the player-driven economy. My wife points out that the character creation is incredibly disappointing after getting used to the costume generator in CoH, and the wide variety of power options across the archetypes, so it doesn't start off with much of a feeling of engagement. I feel less invested in your character, since all I've done is make a small number of choices (faction, race, class, and a couple of options for face. hairstyle, hair color and the like). And then, of course, the early look is the same for all characters, since it's governed by the items you are finding, and the initial drop tables are pretty limited. The early quest rewards are the best items you get, so everyone is wearing them, and they look... disappointing. Night Elves that can wear leather armor all wind up wearing some kind of green bike shorts and little red capes about level 4, so it's like a huge Boy Scout convention. Early armor choices for warriors look like capri pants and muscle shirts.

Part of the problem, of course, is that they're spending so much graphics horsepower on the world, and aiming for a high frame rate. Characters can't be high-detail or your computer would choke on it. The result is a world that is consistent, with reasonable performance and almost no zoning, but you get invested in the world, not so much in your character as yours. The character is defined by the stuff, not the character itself. There's nothing wrong with this model, of course -- it's worked well for years with a wide variety of games. I'm just kind of disappointed that in the MMO genre we're not seeing more games follow the lead of CoH or Second Life and allowing customization of the look and presentation of your avatar that isn't driven purely by the stuff you have.

The other problem with looks based on stuff is that, if I can see it on the enemy, I want to be able to pick it up. Morrowind and Oblivion did this really well -- that guy over there with the glowing sword? Take him down and you'll get the sword. Of course, he's going to use it on you, but that's the breaks. WoW doesn't do this -- I get the stuff from the drop table, not the equipment being used against me. This does give nice variation, which is more fair for various character types, but moves away from the immersion that I'd like to feel.

Also, the skill progression in WoW feels like an afterthought. For tradeskills, it works relatively well -- you need to have a skill of a certain level in order to be able to do some things, and you increase skill by using it. Fair enough. But the model was also extended to weapons, in kind of a half-assed fashion. Weapons don't require a skill number to use, they require you to be a certain level. If Blizzard implemented a skill-based (instead of level-based) method for limiting weapon use, it would increase the power of racial weapon advantages and give meaning to weapon skill. As it is, if you want to pick up a new weapon type past about level 12, it's a trivial cost to enable the skill and then you simply need to spend some time in low-level areas grinding to build up your skill number so your to-hit percentage doesn't suffer. That doesn't do much for immersion or fun, does it? There's no trade-off you are making, deciding to use one weapon type over another, and (apart from a relatively small amount of time and money) no real cost to switching.
What does it all mean? I'm liking WoW for the most part -- I enjoy getting to play with my friends (my wife is playing as well, but since we were already playing CoH together, it's not a new thing), I enjoy the fantasy setting, I'm liking the feeling of learning and building stuff, but it's not perfect.

Then again, what game is?