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23 November 2007 @ 03:57 am
A break from Azeroth  
I just got my first Blood Elf warlock within an inch of lvl 20, to add to my other four alts. He's been some getting used to; only being allowed cloth armor and pretty much limited to needing herbalism & alchemy for protecting his health against the bad guys who aren't forced to fight his minions. It's alright, though, because my first few levels with my Tauren shaman gave me some experience with relatively weak alts.

...and if you don't recognize any of this, you may as well move on, because it just gets geekier from here. ;)

Okay, I'm hooked. I don't mind admitting it because my addictions seem to weigh on me lightly, and this is no different. I started playing World of Warcraft in marathon sessions, but now I rarely play longer than an hour or two every other day. Also, I don't obsess on a single alt, but rather trade between my five from session to session, lvling up the lowest so as to keep them pretty close in experience. This is all beside the point of this post, however, which is supposed to be my version of a review of the game. So, without further ado, WoW in Roger's words:

It is a worthy successor to Gauntlet. More than that, it's what I see as a real beginning for the kinds of virtual worlds seen in science fiction books. The world in the game itself is HUGE and painstakingly populated by flora and fauna, staggeringly so, although I could see it much bigger and much more complex than it is. To a guy whose last major foray into the gaming universe was actually Second Life, which is only marginally prone to gameplay, WoW has been a fresh, versatile waste of time and money.

The world, Azeroth, as I said, is very large, to the extent that there are continents a character would take over an hour to run across west-to-east, much less north-to-south (both main continents are longer north-to-south). The representation of size on the game's maps is deceptive, however. What seem to be planet-girding continents are really just what an offline person would consider to be medium-sized islands. I look forward to a future game that has truly earth-sized landmasses that it would take weeks to walk across containing factional territories that are comparable to national territories of our world. The variety of animals in WoW is also artificially limited. Understandably, given the limitations of servers and computer architecture, of course, but I still see a future of true ecosystems and more natural animal behavior (not too natural, as most real formidable animals avoid human contact like the plague and only come in close contact in unusual circumstances). Where WoW has squirrels, rabbits, and rats all the way up to raptor dinosaurs and dragons; their impoverished overall number of species eventually becomes clear when even finding random bears and mammoth bats in your way become just familiar nuisances. Don't get me wrong, this is probably by far the biggest, most seamless, and best populated game out there right now; but I'm always looking forward, and this kind of MMO still has an order of sophistication (likely after a couple more levels of computing power) to pass through before I say "wow".

Another couple of things about it are elaborate almost to excess, yet somehow wanting. The mythology of WoW is deep and complex. Very deep, some 10,000 years worth I think, and complex enough to encompass the histories of at least eight main races and many more non-player races. The problem for me is that it's not coherent. The histories of Azeroth and its related worlds, found on long pages of the official website and in random books found within the game, are comprised of unexplained invasions and obscure grudges surrounding the heroic or infamous deeds of characters who are completely interchangeable, have no rational motivations besides endless racial warfare, and who are therefore wholly uninteresting. In fact, the histories are so one dimensional that I feel sad for anyone who follows them like Blizzard would like players to do. There are way too many stories of long dead (or are they really?) people whose deeds are unremarkable, regardless of how they are touted to be the beginning of great movements or responsible for devastating schisms. I just don't care about a legendary knight who happened to show up at the right time in a certain battle to kill the Big Bad Guy. I need real history, like found in Tolkien's First and Second Ages, with real character evolution like the political seduction of Feanor by Melkor and real significance given to magical objects by the story like thr Silmarils and the Rings of Power. Again, don't get me wrong, even Tolkien's background stories pale in comparison to the drama and urgency of our own Crusades, Conquests, and wars like the Thirty Year's War and WWII. No imaginary campaign can measure up to the momentous nature of Alexander the Great's or Mao Tse Tung's, nor can any level 70 demigod quite measure up to the personality of Julius Caesar or Thutmosis II. WoW could have gotten closer, though, if they had started with a storyline that players could more easily relate to, something with more of a connection to the real world than medieval humans paranoid of monsters harassing the fringes of their lands and walking bulls whose culture eerily parallels that of plains Indians.

The second, and bigger, problem that I have with the game's background story and racial makeup is that it has no rational explanation for the split between the Alliance and the Horde. Sure, there are the endless stories rooted in a framework built like a sieve, but none of it is compelling enough to explain why these two groups, loosely and nervously held together for their own parts, are somehow absolute blood enemies. They've given us plenty of bad guys to kill, the introduction of which is made superfluous by the Horde/Alliance split. The real killer here, however, is that neither side is allowed to take the strict good and bad roles that seem to be their purpose. The races of the Alliance are vain or outright bigoted, each more smug in their self-righteousness than the next. Those of the Horde, on the other hand, are universally shown as victims of broken alliances and betrayals, none allowed to be evil by their histories. In fact, the histories of the Horde are little more than apologetics, and the races themselves given some noble ultimate goal despite their contradictory usage of things like soul-sapping and deforming radioactivity. If one starts first with a Tauren, one might easily get the idea that he is not a ravening monster, but the pious student of an enlightened race; while one who begins with a human could equally as easily see his purpose as the complete destruction of all other races, including those who his ancestors once made the mistake of allying themselves to. And what reason given? Nothing beyond snide remarks given by non-player characters and openly racist leanings portrayed in human histories. The elves barely seem to tolerate the other races as well, shown by what they say when giving out quests. By comparison, Horde races seem to go out of their way to reaffirm shaky ties. The point of this is that it's too ambiguous for such a game of sword and sorcery. Moreover, this doesn't add to the depth of its mythology or character definitions, but instead water down the very foundations for the heroic epics that make up Azeroth's past. Why should we care about the deeds of a paladin in gleaming armor if he comes from a race that obviously considers even its friends to be barbarians or animals, or feel hate toward a fearsome-looking foe who nevertheless goes about picking peacebloom and earthroot to mix up potions that he uses to heal his friends? Finally, in this ambiguous world, why have two warring player factions then add some one track minded, Sauronesque character like the Lich King? Or, conversely, Why are the Alliance and Horde still fighting when they really aren't in enough moral or political opposition to justify this while there are truly evil bad guys to fight?

To finish, I'll say that WoW is a very good game to play, the one I've been most addicted to since Marble Madness or Robotron 2084; but it's on the one hand unpolished and the other overdone. I'll have to wait for technology to evolve further to see physical realism to the degree that I'd begin to call organic or dirty in the best sense; but Blizzard could really undo a fundamental mistake, in my unhumble opinion, if they would wipe the majority of the histories and replace them with a single, all-encompassing narrative that gives real significance to the stories of singular characters and more logically raises their deeds to an epic level. In short; gameplay great, mythology incomprehensible, and moral relativism puzzling at best.