Venturing into new territory for Torque Control, I’m going to talk about a video game, and when I tell you it is World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King it probably explains my lack of posting around here over the past month.
If you’re not familiar with World of Warcraft, then you’ve probably been living under a rock for the past four years. A massively multiplayer online world with 11 million subscribers around the world, the newest expansion pack managed to sell 2.8 million copies in a single day. I’m pretty sure that makes it the most popular work of fantasy around, and there are spinoff books, comics, card games, and an annual convention with 15,000 attendees.
There are many reasons why WoW is such a ridiculously successful game, and one aspect is certainly the addictive, easy gameplay – it takes a significant time investment to reach a high level, but it doesn’t require much in the way of skill. There’s also an enormous world and backstory to explore, throwing together fantasy and science fiction and horror tropes and lovingly stealing from and referencing everything from Dune to Lovecraft to Siouxsie and the Banshees.
Another big reason for the continuing success is that having made a wildly successful game, they haven’t sat back on their laurels and churned out more of the same, they are actively trying to improve it. Nowhere is this more evident than the epic quest chain which swallowed a large chunk of my weekend, and shows off how well they’ve managed to integrate storytelling and gameplay.
The new expansion introduces a new playable character, the Death Knight. This is the first chance to play a character who is not just morally dubious, but absolute evil in the service of the villainous Lich King,
Elric Arthas. (Arthas has a backstory containing pretty much every epic fantasy cliche going, but he’s now a creepy albino cursed by an evil sword.) Of course, it turns out that being evil is a whole lot of fun.
The game can be criticised for relying on too many quests of the “Go over to X and kill me a whole bunch of Y’s” formula, and there’s still a few of those, but when going to X involves sneaking onto the enemy ship by hiding in a decoy mine cart, and the Y’s are slaughtered by taking control of a cannon to effect mass slaughter before escaping on the back of a flying skeletal horse, I really don’t care. I have stolen horses, killed cowering civilians with my enormous glowing sword, corrupted the innocent with an undead plague, and bombed a town from my skeletal dragon.
Another common criticism of the original game is that the world was far too static and unchanging, and quests which led to enormous revelations had no lasting effect – even when you revealed the evil power behind the throne was a dragon in disguise, she would reset five minutes later to let the next player finish the quest. With the introduction of “phasing”, which allows the same area of the world to appear differently to players at different stages of the game, the quests you complete really do make a difference, and when you set the town on fire and murder all the inhabitants, this time they stay dead. The final quest is not only an epic phased battle with hundreds of participants, it ties up major storylines that have run through the game from the start, as well as the previous Warcraft games.
It is by no means a perfect gaming experience. It’s a much more linear story than in most parts of the game, and there’s no opportunity to run off and do something else, or to skip a quest you find boring. The introduction of new controls can be confusing, when you suddenly find all your normal controls have disappeared and you are in what appears to be a floating eye roaming around the landscape, but you get the hang of it pretty quickly. (Or you don’t, and you send me endless badly-spelled messages asking how you do this part, but your fellow players are both the best and the worst thing about this game, and could fill another post entirely.) It’s also buggy in parts – I missed part of the final quest because I was being endlessly killed by a bugged enemy, and it’s not a part of the game you can easily replay. But if there was anyone considering taking up World of Warcraft, or returning to their dormant characters, it’s worth knowing that once again Blizzard have upped their game, and it’s hard to see how anything else can dislodge them from their place at the top of the MMORPG market.