My housemate let me borrow his copy of World of Warcraft for a couple of days last month, just before my hard drive disappeared. I made a character with his account and tried it out. Two days later I'd purchased my own copy. Its really good. Its highly addictive.
I have characters on Deathwing (Gorgonzola, female Tauren Warrior), Argent Dawn (Eipekili, female Dwarven Hunter and Vaterbild, male Human Paladin), Llane (Cleansupgood, female Undead Warlock and Snagglepus, female Troll Shaman) and Illidan (Pad, female Night Elf Druid). I'm most likely to be found playing Gorgonzola, Eipekili or Snagglepus. If other folks are playing, post up your servers and character names. I prefer role playing servers, maybe we can start a use.perl guild on Argent Dawn?
Before I get into the gaming details I want to talk about the most surprising and geeky part of the game, user interface customization. Unlike most other games where customization is a black art and only grudgingly acknowledged by the designers, WoW has Lua embedded right into the client to allow players to alter the UI. Now, Lua's a pretty crappy language (what, no namespaces?!) but its not TCL and its better than having to hack the binary or use some even more crappy propretary language. And its cross-platform so Mac users can finally play on a level field with the Windows folks. The sorts of things UI customization allows isn't radical but it does allow you to streamline gameplay without waiting for a "one size fits all" patch from Blizzard. Several excellent packages already exist and even the "total conversion" add-ons play nice together. Cosmos, CTMod and Gypsy are the big three providing better quest management, hotkey organization, chat options, mapping systems... they even wrote PvP chess just to see if it could be done.
When picking a server I can make a simple recommendation: pick a RP (Role Playing) server. These are servers where you're expected to role play so instead of "any1 no where i can get a new sword????" it might be "I need myself a new pig sticker, who sells 'em in this town?" or whatever embelishments you might add. The side-effect is the kiddies avoid RP servers so people are more polite, group-oriented and willing to socialize. On the other end of the maturity spectrum are the PvP servers which attract the jerks like flies to honey. For these situations Blizzard supplies the single most important feature in the game,
And now the game.
Blizzard, bless their hearts, supports the Mac really well. Unlike some other companies, Aspyr's appalling slow port of Knights of the Old Republic comes to mind. All their releases are dual Mac/Windows so buying one copy of the software lets you run it on both computers. I have both an iBook G4 (1ghz, 768M, Radeon 9200(?) 32M) and an old Athlon (866Mhz, 512M, GeForce 440) that are at the low end of the requirements and the game runs reasonably well. I have to turn most of the graphics down but its quite playable and still looks good. In the big cities it can strain a bit but fortunately there's very little combat there. The game runs full screen or windowed. I usually have Firefox, iChat and X all running in the background with no problem.
WoW has two things going for it. Its designed to allow folks to get into the game without devoting your life to it while still allowing those who want to do that to do it. It also has a minimum of flaws and annoyances. Its as if the designers looked at all the other MMORPGs out there, figured out what people didn't like about them and fixed it.
Creating a character is straightforward. Race, class, name and a handful of cosmetic features. Beyond that there's very little customization in the game by design. No skill or ability point assignments, its done for you. This makes it nearly impossible to screw up your character in the upper levels by making poor choices in the lower levels. I remember from Ashron's Call (the only other MMORPG I've played) throwing out a mid-level character once I realized he'd been gimped by my starting stat choices. None of that here.
Each race (with a few exceptions) starts in its own area with its own very distinctive feel. Night Elves start in a forest of giant trees. The Undead are in a rotting woods. Taurens begin in vast open plains. Dwarves and Gnomes are high up in the mountains. This separation gives you, effectively, six different scenarios to play for the first 20 or so levels giving the game some replay value. I've been going through and creating different race/class combinations to get a feel for them all without getting bored.
If you're afraid of heights there's some vertigo inducting moments in the game particularly for the Taurens who's city is high up on a bluff. There's something about the way your character falls that causes my stomach to drop out. The "island" the Night Elves start on is actually one enormous "world tree". Going to the edge and looking down to the sea far below can make one a little dizzy.
The game is centered around quests. NPCs stand around with big yellow exclaimation points over their heads. You talk to them and they ask you to do something and offer a reward. Some quests are part of a series. Some are optional. Some lead to better abilities. Its all deceptively linear reminding me very much of Final Fantasy X. The quest system leads you by the nose through learning the game and leveling up all the way through to level 60 (the highest) without letting you realize you're on a rail. At any given time you'll have between 5 and 20 quests going at once, all stored and organized for you so you don't have to write things down. Many quests stack such that accomplishing one allows you to finish another along the way. I find myself planning out trips so I can hit a bunch of quests objectives. After about level 15 you get more choice about where you want to go next in the world... to find more quests. But nothing stops you from running over to another race's area and doing their quests so you can be lead through the game or you can mix it up a little.
If you get stuck on a quest you can just do another one. If you really need help there's thottbot.com, a huge database of game information gathered from information automatically sent in from players using the Thottbot add-on.
One of the initially more controvertial parts of the game was the "resting" system. Pure brilliance. While your character is not in combat and at an inn, major city or logged out its considered to be "resting". Then when you leave and go out to fight you're considered to be "rested". When you're rested you get double the XP for fights. The longer you rest the more fights you can get into before this effect fades. The upshot is there's not so much pressure to always be fighting, always gaining XP else you fall behind. You can relax, talk to people, take in the sights, do some trading and even fish without being penalized. It also levels the playing field between the casual players and those who play every day for hours (ahem, me).
Other subtle ways in which Blizzard encourages players to behave better is the group bonus: a small XP bonus for fighting in a party with other players. The party system has another nice feature: normally party members share XP and money from kills with higher level characters getting the lion's share. But if the members of the party are separated XP and loot is not shared. This allows you to group up with someone, fight for a bit and then go your separate way for a bit perhaps to shop, train or do different quests without breaking up the party.
PvP is done fairly well, though there are problems. The major difference is PvP is only between Horde and Alliance races. This eliminates the constant threat of attack from anyone around you as much of the map areas are populated primarily by one or the other. You cannot be attacked unless you "opt in" either manually or by helping someone else in a PvP fight (there is one exception below). In this case you're only "flagged" for five minutes allowing you to brawl a bit without making a life changing decision as in other MMORPGs. Areas are considered controlled by Alliance or Horde or they are "contested". Horde players entering Alliance territory can always be attacked and vice versa. Alliance players in Alliance territory cannot be unwillingly attacked. This gives you some breathing room without constantly looking over your shoulder in fear. There are special PvP servers with one major difference: in the contested areas (pretty much everything after level 20) everyone is fair game.
PvP is well done but there's a problem at the moment. Often a few level 60s will raid a low level town and slaughter all the NPCs. Guards, merchants, quest givers... a handful of well played, high level folks can slaughter them all. On a normal server the other players are in no danger but its a nuciance as now they can't get anything done as the enemy loiters around continuing to kill NPCs as they respawn. On a PVP server its downright dangerous as a level 60 can cut down a level 20 player in one swipe and you find yourself sneaking into town just to try and complete a quest. As its a low level area there's often no compartively powerful PCs around to drive the assholes out and it takes a while to organize a defense. I've seen instances where mid level towns were occupied for hours. Fortunately, you can just go somewhere else for a while.
Blizzard had a solution for this, the honor/dishonor system. Defeat someone equal or more powerful than you, you get honor points. Cut down newbies, you get dishonor points. Get too many dishonor points and your own NPCs won't talk to you. You have to rebuild your reputation. For a reason I don't know this system was removed. It looks like they're planning on putting it back in real soon now.
Blizzard has another PvP improvement in the works: Battlegrounds. A specific part of the map that's all PvP complete with PvP quests and a huge PvP war going on. This should, I hope, suck away all the bored level 60 players from just ganking newbies.
Combat is done very well and despite the lack of twitchy features it doesn't get dull. Your basic attack is "hit this guy until one of us is dead" but if you just do that you won't last long. Every class has 10 to 20 combat abilities to select from. Spells, pets, demons, shield bashes, stuns, shouts... all with different effects. The Warrior class, usually the dullard of the RPG world, rivals the mages in his combat options. The upshot is that you can't get lazy in combat. You're always doing something to meet the current threat. Enemy's preparing to cast a spell? Shield bash to interrupt it. Think he's going to flee? Hamstring to slow his movement. Have to fight a bunch of enemies? Throw down a target dummy to distract them while you concentrate on one.
Add to this the "aggro" system. Other monsters are always walking around and sometimes they wander near to you, get aggrivated and attack. Different monsters have different aggro radiuses. If you're not careful your 1 on 1 fight can suddenly become 3 on 1 and then even low level monsters become very dangerous. Many will flee and get help!
While fighting in a group monsters will attack whom they think is the greatest threat, and Blizzard was pretty smart with this. Usually its whatever's doing them damage but they also go after healers with a vengence. Casting a healing spell in combat is an excellent way to get beaten. As a result there are various ways to generate "threat" in order to get monsters to pay attention to you. Managing threat gives playing in a group a whole new dimension.
So, I said the game was good and almost great. Its almost great in that it really has no major flaws or tedious bits. What keeps it from being great is its lack of discovery. As an example: cooking. In Asheron's Call you learned how to cook by gathering ingredients from all over the world and trying various semi-logical combinations to see what happened. You could play a very fun game just being a full time cook. In WoW you find or buy recepies and that's that. If you don't have the recepie you can't make the food. All the trade skills are like that making WoW a very combat oriented game. This is not to say the trade skills are not interesting, but they are, at best, a part time job to help you kill people and take their stuff. Though its Blizzard so I'm not too surprised.
The other major problem has been reliability and lag. Lag spikes. Overpopulated servers. Login servers going down. Server restarts. 10 hour maintenance windows. The experience has varied depending on what server you play on, the 20 or so very popular ones having a very rough time while the lower pop ones I'm fortunate enough to be on being just a nuicance. Blizzard has been doing some frantic behind the scenes work and its been getting better.
Two things have lead to this. One: the game is wildly popular. Something like a million copies sold. So popular rumor has it they've asked major retailers to pull it from the shelves until they can work out the load issues. Two: you can't move characters between servers. Players want to play with their friends so they make a character on whatever server their friends are playing on. This has a snowballing effect and as a result folks tend to cluster on a handful of servers. Now the logic of Final Fantasy XI's maligned World Pass system becomes clear (you couldn't choose what server you started on in FFXI but you could eventually purchase, in game, a "World Pass" and move your character). Its unknown what Blizzard is goign to do about that but its imagined some way to move characters will be implemented. Fortunately you can have six characters per server so if you're like me you just have a bunch of characters on a bunch of different servers so downtime on one doesn't matter too much.
Finally, the treatment of women. The male models are very diverse and well crafted, particularly amongst the Horde races. The females... not so much. Of course they're all wide hiped and large breasted. Armor on females is usually revealing and impractical despite the fact that the same armor on a male is sensible. One particular "robe" on a female Night Elf turned out to be a skirt showing lots of leg and a strip of cloth draped over the shoulders. The dwarven women have what looks like two bolders glued to their chest. I don't think the model designers at Blizzard get out much. As expected, the less Barbie female models (Orc, Dwarf, Tauren, Troll) don't get played much. In fact, I didn't see a single female Dwarf PC so I went out of my way to make one myself. One fellow took a screenshot they're so rare.
Is it worth $15 a month? Yes. Is it worth $50 to get started? Its a little steep, but you do get a month free. There's rumor of a $30 edition which is just the CD-ROMs with a PDF manual but I haven't seen it. Is it worth the hours it'll suck away from your life? Well... its mostly replaced my IRC time so I just think of it as a trade off.