This review originally appeared in E153, September 2005.
The recent release of the Battlegrounds patch was the longawaited moment when World Of WarCraft reached maturity. Offering access to intense, complex battles, with 80 players and dozens of NPCs, this was the feature that was designed to deliver on the game's ambitious name. Playing it, you live the experience of the troops you commanded from afar in the WarCraft RTS games. Horde and Alliance face off across the frontline, old racial hatreds simmering in their blood. Hungry for victory, they're also hungry for each other's deaths, eager to harvest teeth, hooves and spines for personal rewards. Combat is dynamic and complex, an ocean of strategy and in-depth knowledge sustaining a firestorm of snap decisions and quick-fingered manoeuvring. The majestic beauty of the setting adds to the potency of the atmosphere. 'This is our land', both sides think. 'We will not permit defeat'. Battlegrounds was the crucial missing component of WarCraft, something whose implementation was supposed to form a whole it was appropriate to judge. Playing it now, however, it turns out to be a microcosm of the game as a whole: extraordinary, exceptional, flawed.
There are flaws on every level of World Of WarCraft. The most high profile have been those in the infrastructure. Long teething troubles caused by the unprecedented success of the game meant that for many months servers were overloaded and unreliable. Even now, with Battlegrounds, the queue systems and the instanced warzones themselves are periodically offine. There are bugs – inevitable in a project of this size, but intensely frustrating to players putting in a level of time and money to the game which magnifies even tiny splinters into sidegouging thorns. There are game structure issues which may never be addressed: will players of substantially different levels ever be able to play together meaningfully? How can the war players are supposed to be crafting ever feel fair when Alliance players often outnumber Horde three to one? Then there is a sense that even Blizzard's rapidly expanding staff can't quite meet the scale of the project they've embarked on: quests that shriek placeholder and stories that peter out. There are thousands upon thousands of complaints, from unfounded, petty carping to substantial and serious criticisms.
Nor is it that Blizzard has failed to address these complaints. Throughout the game's life, it's been running to catch up with itself. Major introductions, like the Honour system, have been tooled to restructure the biggest problem areas, and yet each of these has been as ambitious but as flawed as the original. Honour initially worsened many of the PvP issues it was hoped it would solve. Battlegrounds only really offers the full scale of the experience to the highest level of players, and hasn't resolved many concerns such as the even-handed reward of damage classes and support classes. There's no doubt Blizzard will continue to work to overhaul the problem areas, and to continually advance and embellish the rest of the game, but most players have now come to expect the two-steps-forward, one-step-back results of their efforts.
But here's the remarkable thing: it doesn't matter. You could write a book (and some disgruntled WOW fans more or less have) about what's wrong with the game, and you wouldn't come close to expressing what's important about it. It's a game designed to exhaust the world's supply of adjectives. It's a world littered with riches – tiny details sewn into a vast, varied and utterly spectacular canvas. The specific shortcomings of the game's mechanical structure become immaterial in an environment that grants the player such endless potential for exploration and experimentation. Self-imposed quests and self-regulated cooperation take WOW's treasury of raw materials and hew from them a new structure and a new focus. Guilds cooperate on months of epic efforts just to make their members a new kind of bag. Days of planning go into braving the divide and escorting a player of the rival faction through hostile territories. New exchange rates spring up, specialisations are formed, reputations are made. The game's world becomes the player's world.
It's simple arithmetic that wins out in the end. For every flaw there are two dozen flares of brilliance: in the characterisation and the game balancing, in the innovations that challenge the stultified assumptions of the MMO genre, in the aesthetics and the atmosphere, in the magnificent music, in the flexibility of solo and party play. For all its problems, this is a game of rare and wonderful accomplishments, a creative vision that has a completeness and a rigour few can match. Tens of thousands of decisions have been made which strengthen the game; tens of thousands of those decisions have been implemented with extraordinary skill and flair. But in the end, the hallmark of a great game isn't in its spec sheet or its design document. It's in its players' eyes and in their faces as they tell you of adventures past and planned, of encounters unexpected and unforgettable. Of moments of slapstick and cunning, of preposterous victories pulled from the jaws of dumb cowardice, of noble defeats slammed in the face of dogged determination, of warm camaraderie and of intrepid solitude. In the end, it's not its sales figures that make World Of WarCraft a true phenomenon.