Crispy Gamer

Crispy Gamer's Virtual World Factbook: World of Warcraft

Release Date: November 2004

Expansions to date: World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade (January 2007)

Costs: $19.99 to $29.99 at retail; subscription fees are $14.99, with the first month free.

Millions of players worldwide, an Emmy-winning 'South Park' episode and an ad campaign that can claim credit to introducing Mr. T to a new generation -- all of this points to one fact: World of Warcraft is a genuine cultural phenomenon. It's also the highest (read: most lucrative) expression of a genre that was formerly hopelessly niche, and quite possibly the biggest gaming event of the past 10 years. The four years in which it's been out have felt like an eternity, especially for those heavily enfranchised (read: hopelessly addicted). For someone on the sidelines, keeping up on what's what could be a daunting proposition.

For this reason, Crispy Gamer presents its Virtual World Factbook for the World of Warcraft. Whether you're a lapsed player who's wondering how WoW has kept up, or a complete newbie who wants to know if the game is right for you, this guide is for you. And if you're a diehard player still in the mix who simply wants another piece of Web content at which to get pissed off, by all means, fire away.

The World of Warcraft is ever-changing, and we've tried our best to in this piece to capture a snapshot of its most relevant aspects. Take this information and use it to carve yourself a hard-won victory in the brutal world of Azeroth.

The Early Game

World of Warcraft basically wrote the book on providing a newbie-friendly MMO experience. Character creation is a straightforward process that doesn't bog you down with hard game mechanics, focusing instead on avatar customization. You simply choose a race and class, play with sliders till you arrive at an acceptable look, choose a name, and enter the world. Once in, you'll find yourself face to face with your first quest-giver -- a non-player character of your race with, invariably, a floating exclamation mark over its head. The newbie starting areas are designed to continually direct you toward these NPC quest-givers, and the stream of tasks remains steady till well after you're ready to tread outside their borders.

Quests play a major role in the early game. At the beginning you'll seldom do anything outside of the bounds of one of a quest, frankly, due to the growing heaps of experience points you're awarded whenever you complete one. Your prospects are somewhat limited when you're starting out, since there are only a few areas designed specifically for low-level characters, but as you level up, your options broaden considerably. Once you reach the mid-levels, you'll have several zones from which to choose.

The content of quests is not always inventive, but they all fulfill their function: to net you experience, coin and, frequently, items that are actually useful to your character. The most formulaic quests (and, for those prone to a cynical view, those of the most plentiful variety) simply require you to track down and kill a certain number of a certain type of monster and perhaps retrieve some of their items, then reward you for your trouble. The best quests are ones that, while they may involve some of the abovementioned elements, manage to weave the game's lore into the experience and enable you to visit some of the cooler locales in the world in the process. There are a great many multi-leg quests in the game that fit this bill and provide some great material rewards when all is said and done. These are the ones that you'll most remember.

Forming groups with other players doesn't necessarily factor into the early game experience. Indeed, if you're intent on playing solo all the way to maximum level of 70, it's more than possible, but along the way, you'll encounter a number of difficult group quests that may encourage you to party up with fellow players. Scattered throughout the world there are also plenty of instanced dungeons that are designed for well-balanced parties of five players. These lower-level dungeons have been retouched in terms of gameplay balance and loot rewards in the recent patch 2.3, and have thus enjoyed a bit of a resurgence of popularity.

For long time, WoW's "old world" seemed to have lost a bit of its luster when compared to the environments introduced in its first expansion, The Burning Crusade. Patch 2.3 remedied this to a degree by making lower-level quest rewards more consistent with the amounts of experience that expansion quests award. It's difficult to praise these kinds of broad-stroke remedies to sweeping flaws; it almost feels as if Blizzard is trying to speedily propel lower-level characters toward the late game, where all the "good" content is. But whatever the intention, the effects are undeniable: there are tons of low-to-mid-level characters running around in the World of Warcraft today, which is nothing but good news for newcomers and rerollers.

The Late Game

Depending on whom you ask, World of Warcraft either truly begins when you hit level 70 or dies an unceremonious death. Endgame proponents will argue that the leveling process is just a test-run for real game, which begins when your character has realized its full potential. More casual players will lament the lack of tangible progression in the late game, generally feeling resentment toward the deadlocked, repetitive gear-grind that the game can become after you hit the apex.

The Cooperative Game

Regardless of how you feel about the variety, there is quite a bit to do once you hit the maximum level in WoW. Freshly-minted level 70s stand a lot to gain from running the high-level dungeons in the Outland, the extra-dimensional expansion "continent" introduced in The Burning Crusade. For one, you could probably use the equipment upgrades; dungeon "blues" (in reference to the color of rare items in game's color-coded item classification system) are likely leagues better than the equipment you used while leveling. Secondly, killing monsters and completing quests in the higher tiers of these endgame dungeons will increase your reputation with a number of the factions in the world. Get a high enough rep with these groups, and you become eligible for some decent item rewards. More importantly, you're also able to run "Heroic" versions of the endgame dungeons -- that is, versions of them with the difficulty increased, and the rewards ramped up in kind. Heroic-difficulty dungeons also have a built-in token-based reward system, which Blizzard promises will expand as the game matures.

The next logical step for players is to get into the raiding scene, and this is where many of them will hit a wall. Raids in World of Warcraft are essentially the same as the standard dungeons, except they require many more participants: They're designed for either 10 or 25 players. They typically also require much more of a time investment, and call for a greater deal of coordination and discipline from the group. This is what's most prohibitive about the raid scene; prior to getting to this level, players are typically able to see real progression in their characters by playing as their schedule allows. Participating in raids, however, usually means you're in a guild that tackles this content on a set schedule, and if you're unavailable to play at these times, the show goes on without you. At this point in WoW's life, it's not too unusual to see pick-up groups of assorted players forming for the two 10-player raids in the game. If you want to tackle the 25-player raids, though, you're going to have to get more serious about your hobby; it's not uncommon for the sorts of "serious" raiding guilds that tackle these dungeons to require a certain level of dedication from their members. This can mean not only showing up for scheduled events, but also dedicating a few hours per week during your "off-time" to gathering materials that bolster your raid performance -- like expensive ingredients for potions and stats-enhancing foods. Serious business indeed.

The Competitive Game

Player vs. Player is a good way to take a break from the doldrums of dungeon-running or raiding (or to opt out of them altogether). WoW didn't have too compelling a PvP scene for its first couple of years of existence, but it's been steadily improving since the launch of The Burning Crusade. Players have two ways to approach the act of besting their peers: via the structured, merit-driven Arena system or through the more casual instanced Battlegrounds.

The Arena system is the highest expression of WoW PvP. Level 70 players can form teams for three different brackets and go at it in a handful of confined spaces. The format is simple: the last team standing wins. Each of the three different brackets brings with it distinct strategies in terms of class composition; combinations that work in the two-on-two or three-on-three may not be directly portable to the five-on-five game. By nature, the higher brackets tend to be the most balanced in terms of gameplay, though depending on the current state of class balance, this isn't always a given. Teams have a numerical rating (similar to the ELO system used in chess tournaments), and every win or loss affects that number. Rewards come in the form of points that are apportioned each week, with higher-rated teams earning a larger take. Participants can then use these points to purchase equipment from vendors in the game world. Bar none, the gear acquired through the Arena system is the best available for PvP, statistically speaking. And though players on mediocre teams can't acquire a complete set of the most current PvP gear simply by participating in losing matches over a few weeks, they can come pretty close -- the only items that require a specific personal rating from characters are the Arena weapons and the shoulder pieces of the Gladiator armor. Team ratings are reset periodically when a new 'season' starts, but thus far (WoW is currently three seasons in), there's no real discernable rhyme or reason as to how long each one lasts. Each season also brings with it a new assortment of Gladiator equipment, comparable in relative power to the most powerful raid-garnered equipment in the game (though, of course, with stats skewed for PvP).

Battlegrounds are markedly different. They're conducive to a more casual approach since they don't require any formal commitments between players. They're also much larger in scale -- anywhere from 10-on-10 to 40-on-40. Currently, there are four different Battleground events in WoW: a 10-on-10 capture-the-flag game and three variants on territory control, built for 15-on-15, 20-on-20 and 40-on-40. The latter event, Alterac Valley, began its life in a form vastly different from what it's like today; it was in fact only after the most recent patch that it seems to have settled into a structure that roughly resembles that of its smaller-scale cousins. Participating in a Battleground is as simple as locating the right NPC in one of the game's capitol cities, and entering a virtual queue. Depending on the population distribution on your server cluster, your turn can arrive immediately, or you'll find yourself waiting for several minutes. The reward structure is similarly loose. You gain "honor" for every opposing player you help to kill and for every Battleground objective (like capturing a flag, or holding a resource node) that your team fulfills. Honor serves as a form of currency similar to Arena points, though the totals are tallied daily as opposed to weekly. You can buy gear that fills the gaps that the Arena sets leave empty, as well as Gladiator equipment from previous seasons.

Emergent, open-world PvP is without question one of the elements that Blizzard has left underdeveloped. If you're on a PvP server, these sorts of skirmishes can happen anywhere that you'd encounter players of the opposing faction, with a few key exceptions: Newbie zones and capitol cities only allow hostile players to attack natives who have "flagged" themselves for PvP. This "flagging" mechanic extends to the entire game world for non-PvP servers. In an attempt to encourage PvP in the persistent world (and, presumably, to contain bloodthirsty players to sites where they're less likely to bully newbies), WoW's designers have built PvP objectives into specific areas in a few zones. The best-executed example of this is a spot called the Bone Wastes in the Outland zone of Terokkar Forest. Once every 24 hours, players of opposing factions can battle it out for control of a series of towers located around one of the most popular dungeon clusters in the game. Players of the winning faction earn special tokens every time they kill a boss monster in one of the zone's dungeons, which they can redeem for special rewards.

Most of the time, though, open-world PvP isn't consensual in this way, and rarely is it balanced. It's actually a pretty common occurrence to be mercilessly slaughtered by players much more powerful and plentiful in number on PvP servers, especially in certain hotspots notorious for this kind of cutthroat play. Players who wish to avoid this are typically advised to develop their characters on non-PvP servers (usually with a good heap of derision).

Tomorrow's WoW

The next big thing coming for the World of Warcraft is its second expansion, The Wrath of the Lich King. It's due out sometime next year (the smart bet puts it around Christmas), and it's going to augment the game in many of the ways that The Burning Crusade did earlier this year: it will increase the level cap (from 70 to 80), introduce a new playable class (the grim Death Knights), and add a new tradeskill profession to the game (Inscription, which will allow players to tweak their inherent class abilities). The Wrath of the Lich King will further the Warcraft story by focusing on one of its most iconic figures: the titular Lich King Arthas, a former paragon of the Alliance who was unwittingly consumed by malefic forces during a selfish quest for vengeance. Lich King's Outland is the icy continent of Northrend, home base of the murderous undead Scourge and the resting place for many of Azeroth's most ancient horrors.

The most pronounced thread of speculation in the community gives the current game one more sizable patch before The Wrath of the Lich King launches. As far as we know for a fact, The Burning Crusade has two sizable hurrahs left in it: Sunwell Plateau, a 25-player raid, and the Magister's Terrace, the 5-player dungeon thematically attached to it. Both of these will be included in patch 2.4; the rest of the rumored changes, including a second pass at the PvP changes introduced in patch 2.3, are still purely speculative.