Definitive review: first 10 levels of WAR as a WOW fan

[Disclaimer] The title is clear: I only played through ten levels of the game, and I am a Wow fan. I also never played a Warhammer game before that. And I know that the game might also turn into a completely different experience later on, but this is a “first impressions” review.

So how should I approach such a loaded review?
I’m a World of Warcraft fan (not a fanboy, there’s a difference) and Warhammer Online is the first really credible threat to Blizzard’s hegemony in the MMO space in four years. I would like to give Wow players an idea of the experience of discovering the game the same way I did…
Got it! A “step by step” review with interweaving of good / bad points, with personal commentary. It will allow me to detail most of the game’s features in a way that will be relevant to the Wow crowd. This is the bestest idea ever, I can feel it! Let’s see if it works…

1) Install and character creation

Good: Install, patching and launcher.

Pretty straightforward, the game installs, you create your account and you’re in. Patching takes a while the first time, but that’s to be expected. The nice thing is that you don’t have an excruciating file check process every time you launch the game, as you do in most MMOs (I’m looking at you AOC). Double click and you’re in.

Bad: Logos, logos, logos.

The game launches: EA logo, Mythic logo, Games Workshop logo, GOA logo, intro CG (with the same logos again BTW), Warhammer logo and loading screen, EULA (scroll, check, accept)… Seriously?!
So you expect me to go through all this every time I want to get in the game?
I really don’t understand why the hell they would do it that way. They did such a good job with the launcher, what in the world would motivate them to make me sit through all this? Did you think it would make me like your companies more? News flash: it doesn’t. Second news flash: you can patch this, and you should. And for the love of Pete, only bring up the stupid EULA thing with new patches or something!
This might be a very personal pet peeve, but it irritates the hell out of me.
Ok, let’s move on and be constructive.

Good: character creation and screen.

Select your realm, and you get to choose a class. Three unique classes per race, three races per faction, and two factions of course. That’s eighteen unique classes in all. It’s a lot, but it’s not too confusing: the trick is that every choice is represented by a character that is straight out of the intro movie. Very clever: I have a clear idea of what each of them do straight away. And on top of that they state the character’s archetype in the description: melee DPS, healer, etc… Thank God! Please, other games, don’t try to be to original: we have conventions, and I have no idea what a “follower of Wolfaxx” class does.
Second clever idea: next time I’ll log in, the screen will load straight to my last realm / character with a big fat “play” button to take me straight into the game. This makes the previous point about logos even more frustrating, but whatever.

Bad: character customization and choppy animation.

The character customization is slightly better than Wow’s, but it’s still very sub par. I understand why they do it: lighten the load when there are too many characters on screen. But it’s still annoying in Wow and it’s annoying here too. It seems I can attach cosmetic accessories to my belts and shoulders and such later in the game though, so there’s an effort I guess.
In the same department, I’ll mention the choppy animation here even though I only witnessed it when I started playing. The animation in itself is rather average. Not the best I’ve seen; there definitely are some issues, but it’s not the worst one ever either. But when an NPC or a player is a bit farther away from you, it becomes very choppy (about five frames per second I guess). Again, I understand why they do that: major battles with many characters on screen would take a toll on your system otherwise. But it still makes me cringe a little every time I see it.

2) First steps into the game

Good: fun from the start!

I create a few different classes at first, to try and get a feel for the game. Every single one of them has a different mechanic, and it’s pretty darn fun from the beginning.
One has different stances he moves to and out of with every special attack, another builds dark energy with each spell, etc. I settle for a Marauder (from the Chaos kingdom). He gets a mutated arm that allows him to use special abilities. Haters will tell me that they’re just wrappers around existing mechanics, but the truth is that it’s a really fun implementation. Just casting fireballs for the first four levels isn’t all that enticing anymore, even if it lasts only 10 minutes.

Bad: Interface = confusing + laggy.

So I take a couple of seconds to look at my screen… Boy, what is all this? There must be four different XP type bars, buttons around the minimap, other buttons around the chat, one under my character’s frame, stuff floating around on top of the screen… It might be because I’m used to it, but I don’t remember Wow being anywhere as confusing.
Also, the polish on the interface seems very off. To be honest it’s an issue that I see in every MMORPG out there: the mouse is a bit laggy and “soft”. The nice thing about console games is that they are very clear and approachable, and that’s something that the MMO designers need to take a page from. Blizzard does it for all their games, and their interface very streamlined and incredibly responsive. Here, the windows have tiny frames, small buttons, they don’t stand out, and most importantly, they feel kind of sluggish. Hard to put your finger on it, but you know it when you see it.
So there’s nothing wrong with it on a functional level, but as the experience as a user is, in my opinion, rather poor. It’s a horrible thing to say about a game people have been working so hard on, but it this feels somewhat amateurish.

Good: Quest helper.

On the other hand, the map tells me where I should go to complete this or that quest. I know that some people don’t like this because it makes the game too easy, but most people who really try it out find that it brings more good than bad. I know I won’t use the addon that brings that functionality when I’ll be leveling through the next Wow expansion, but that’s a personal choice and most people just get frustrated when they have to read every quest. Bottom line: it should pretty much be a standard feature by now. AOC has it, WAR has it, WoW has a great addon that does it… Deal with it.

Bad: We’re evil, I get it.

Ok, first really irritating thing.
I took the time to read the manual while the game was patching, and this just confirms my initial impression: every race is the most horrible, barbaric, violent, unstoppable, blood thirsty thing on the planet. All of them. Each class has a description that is more emphatic than the other. They like to hear the screams of their enemies when they tore their limbs apart, they live for battle and crushing the skulls of their opponents, they eat each other’s eyes out when they’re bored, they strangle puppies to unwind after a hard day of stabbing villagers in the face… Even the “good guys” are displayed as some sort of inquisition (at least in the manual), and they probably love to eat the bad guys’ intestines for soul cleansing or something. So I think I get the picture, maybe they can stop now. But they don’t stop: everything in the game oozes horror and destruction, and shows you how really bad and mean and horrible everyone really is. They all greet you with “Don’t you have fighting to do?” or “Oh, I see you’re still alive”, and you can hear cries of agony everywhere you go.
I guess that’s what Mark Jacobs meant when he said, with pride, that their game was more “edgy” than Warcraft. To be honest I find it a bit adolescent and annoying. Imagine a World of Warcraft where everyone was like those insufferable blood elves (“Death to all who oppose us!”) It’s a very fun aspect of the game, but if it was like that everywhere it would be unbearable.
Also, I have to say that there is *zero* humor in the game. The orcs and goblins are probably supposed to serve that purpose, but they are more idiotic (read “moronic”) than they are funny and I don’t find them amusing at all. One of the cool and refreshing things about Wow is the comedic relief we get from the easter eggs and dances. It was the first MMO that didn’t take itself too seriously, and it really worked. I understand that Mythic could probably not have pulled it off if they wanted to be really respectful of the Warhammer universe, but… Well, I guess it plays into the “We’re evil, I get it” argument.
I absolutely admit that this is probably a very personal feeling.

Good: A new ability every level!

So it takes me two minutes to level, and I get a new ability. Pretty normal. Then I level again, and I get another ability. Err… wait, do you mean to say I get a new ability every time I level? Why yes, it seems you do! Well I say this is pretty brilliant. Quite frankly I get pissed off every single time I get a new level with an ALT in Wow and only get a stinking talent point for it.
It might be important to say that you get talent points when you reach level 10 in War too (although the talent system is simpler than Wow’s). You also get “moral” abilities: special spells you can only do at certain times (kind of “finisher” moves). And you also also get stat buffs and misc bonuses from your PVP ranks with “reknown points” (more on that later).
All in all, you’re pampered in the abilities/spells department and it makes the whole thing interesting and complex.

3) After playing for a while

Bad: Sound design.

I think the area in which games have progressed the most in the past few years is probably sound design. Recent games have incredible mood and sound effects, and those have really become a substantial part of the experience.
I’m sorry to say that WAR isn’t part of that trend. I can absolutely imagine the meeting where everyone was saying: “so we’re pretty much ready for launch, right?”. The sound engineer sitting in the corner would raise his hand: “hey, I’m working on this alone guys, I need a few more months!” and everyone else gives him the evil eye and wonders why the sound guy is talking. Poor sound guy.
Well, it shows. The sound in the game is so standard and generic… No, that’s not even it: it’s plain bad. There is sound, sure, but there might as well not be. And music is on the same level. It might not seem like such a big deal, but when you play the game and you feel like something’s a bit off, that’s probably part of it.

Good: Pvp at level two, from anywhere in the world?!

This game was touted as the one where you could do your whole leveling by just PVPing. And well, at level two I already got a quest to go in a battleground (they are called scenarios) and smash some faces!
– “Hmmm should I find a battle master or something?” Not even! Just click on the icon next to the minimap and you’re in the queue.
– “But wait, I’m a level two, won’t my face get smashed?” No you’re not just level two! If you’re way too low level, your stats get adjusted to a more respectable level for the duration of the battle. You don’t get the abilities you would at level 8, but you get health and stuff like that (works like the mentoring system you can find in other games).
So of course I get massacred anyway because I have no idea what I’m doing. But it’s fun and I get XP, so I don’t complain. That quest, by the way, wants me to participate in a game, not to win it. Awesome, because we’re loosing.
Side thought: XP for battlegrounds? Hmmm, I can feel some serious AFK coming when people start leveling alts…
About the scenario itself? It’s ok I guess. It’s a zone control fight: you have to stand next to a flag to control the area, and you have three areas in the map. A mini Eye of the Storm with no flag, kinda. One issue though: the proximity of each point and the speed of the capturing process makes it seem like the only efficient strategy is to form one giant group and run from one point to the next, recapturing them as they go. So it sort of feels like a big brawl with very little strategy. It’s still fun though, and it might change at higher levels.

Bad: Graphics are nothing special.

So I get out of the Battle… err… scenario, and I start walking around and exploring. Immediate feeling: graphics are really not impressive. This has been confirmed as I’ve leveled and gone through other zones. They are not bad per say; I would even say that they are pretty good from a technical standpoint (MMO wise). But I’ve seen those graphics before. Photo realistic graphics have that problem: they all tend towards the same goal, and all look pretty similar. Every single heroic fantasy setting has them. Sure, there’s some amount of variation, and WAR is not completely photo realistic. There is some attempt at stylizing: some things are slightly more colorful, some characters have over the top armors… but I’ve seen that big dude in a huge spiked armor a million times, and honestly, nothing makes him stand out in this game.

Very Good, bordering on genius: Public quests!

I’ve heard a lot about this mechanic, but didn’t realize how awesome it was until I tried it myself. I’m now level three and start walking around the second warcamp. I come across an area where a bunch of people seem to be congregating and fighting some mobs. As I approach, a thing pops up in the corner of the screen:
“Public quest: Monstrous Horror Thing, phase one: Kill 15 meanies (5/15)”. Wow, just like that? I’m part of the quest just for walking in? Cool guys, I’m in! I start killing meanies too. 15/15, done!
“Phase 2: Free 10 tortured souls of suffering”. Easy enough, we have to click on the graves, but there are “Champion” mobs (elites) walking around, so we need to do stick together. 10/10, next!
“Phase 3: Kill the Giant Blob of Doom”. There’s a little animation where giant blob guy kills the priests that summoned him, and then we have to take him together, sort of like a boss raid. We do, and it feels great.
Then an automatic random roll determines who gets a “big loot bag”, who gets a “small loot bag”, and who gets nothing. The more you participated (time wise), the more likely you are to get them. When you open the bag you get to choose from 4 or 5 items. They are always the same so if you really want one you just need to redo the quest.
You also gain reputation with that area’s faction, sort of. Except you just need to do it three times to max it out, and you get to chose rewards for every “stage” of the reputation gain (there are three of them). First stage is a potion, second stage is a minor item, and third one is a pretty damn good piece of equipment.
Ok, let’s take a minute here to generalize my feelings about public quests: this feature has been so well crafted and thought out that I think it should simply be part of every single MMO from now on. No kidding. This is one of the greatest gameplay feature in an MMO since games went multiplayer and online. It brings people together organically, gives them multiple reasons and motivations to be there, and creates a setting for them to work as a group without any effort on their part. I don’t see what’s not to like.
The only issue I can see is that in later zones there were a three or four distinct PQ areas, and most of them were… completely deserted. And it’s not like there was a population problem on my server: it was more than full and I even had to wait in line to log in a couple of times. This could be addressed in other implementations of the idea I’m sure, but for WAR it is a real issue at the moment. One that could even nullify the benefits of that great idea…

Very good: Open groups.

And while we’re on very good ideas, let’s talk about the excellent “open groups” feature.
When you form a group, you can specify for it to be “open”, so anyone can just jump in. And the Looking for Group window tells you how far away some open groups are (in minutes!)
This is one of the gems of the game: it takes part of the burden of forming a group off the shoulders of the leader. And it is a lot better than the random “auto-join” feature that Wow has.
This facilitates player interaction quite a bit, and I would be happy to see it implemented in every MMO from now on, in one form or another. It works well in PVE of course, but it’s just as useful in PVP and I can imagine it will do wonders for instances (wait, now that I think of it, I haven’t seen any instances… are there even dungeons in the game?)

4) Feelings after ten levels

Bad: No sense of realm.

So I’ve had time to explore a few zones now, and I have to say that I’m not impressed with the world. I’m going from zone to zone as I would from level to level in an arcade game. There’s no branching, no neighboring areas, no possible way to get lost. A few things I didn’t like:
– If I advance half a zone too much, the mobs two levels above me just murder me. I’m stuck in place.
– I can’t enter any building in these little encampments along the road. Actually, I can’t enter any building at all in the whole world it seems.
– When I finally got to see a city, it was after ten hours of gameplay and I didn’t walk to it. It was a kind of direct teleport mechanic that doesn’t show me anything of the travel.
– The city itself is also a collection of somewhat empty spaces and caves with no real buildings I can enter. Some of the background and architecture are nice, but it doesn’t make up for all the rest.
I’ll stop there but I could go on. Honestly, this is really really not good for my enjoyment of the game. Some people won’t care, but I’m an explorer and one of the nice things to do in an MMO is to travel and discover new places. Here, the geographic progression is horribly linear: zone 1, zone 2, zone 3… it’s like a tunnel. And they look pretty generic too. Oh, here are the plains. Hey, there’s a mountain. Wow, that’s a forest!
It might seem unfair, but I think that today you need to have either incredible graphics or a very distinct art style. Most MMOs can’t have the first, so I think they should strive for the second. Crysis’ detail level might be great, but if you can’t get that, go for Team Fortress 2’s originality. Or at least give me some visual feature that will make the game stand out.

Good: The Tome of Knowledge.

Everything I do is recorded in this interface device. A giant book with a quest log, a list of titles I acquired, all the monsters I’ve met, my achievements, a description of all the steps I went through in my level progression and much much more. It makes my adventure feel sort of epic, knowing that all this is recorded in that tome that I can revisit at any time. You can also check out the zones you’ve explored (complete with the quest notes), you can check the “notable people” you’ve met as well as the ones you’ve missed, etc, etc. You have to see it, but it’s a very nice way of doing things.

Bad: Idle mobs and aggro mechanics.

Another thing that I noticed as I keep exploring the world and doing quests is that the mobs feel very very static. Lifeless almost. Soldiers will stand next to one another, sword in hand, and look into each other’s eyes for hours on end without moving. Wolves will walk around, without a sound and at the exact same pace, for as long as you can look at them. No running, no chasing their tail (or a rabbit), no nothing.
And when you decide to pull one of them, they will most likely come alone, no matter how close their little buddy was standing. Maybe they didn’t really like each other that much. Again, this is nothing game breaking, but it hurts the mood and overall quality of the experience quite a bit.

Meh: Achievements and titles.

Achievements seemed like a great idea in theory, but here most of them are just way too random for me to care. For example, I got one for clicking on myself ten times (…). I got one for being killed by a beast ten times. I got one for talking to ten NPCs. Oh great! It’s… wait, why do I care again? I’m sure some of the higher level ones will be better, but for now it’s just a bad implementation of a good idea: they don’t make me feel special at all and hold no value to me.
Same thing with titles; that’s the kind of thing players are convinced they need a ton of, but don’t realize how trivial it makes them. I got about ten tittles in the first ten levels, but they didn’t really mean anything. In Wow, I got my “Champion of the Naaru” title yesterday, and I will wear it proudly all the way to level 80 I’m sure.
So none of this is actually making the game less good, but it’s sort of a missed opportunity. The higher levels are sure to bring rare titles that will wow your team mates. But for now, all this is… meh.

Very very bad: Quests suck, PVE is boring.

We reach a milestone in my understanding of the game here.
At first I insisted on playing the game the way I usually play MMOs: going out and adventuring. Bad idea… I didn’t understand why this was so slow and painful, and why every quest is exactly the same as the one before it. But I think that in the end, WAR is a PVP game. PVE is tacked on, and they didn’t do a very good job at it. You definitely can feel it wasn’t their focus at all. Quests are incredibly repetitive and unimaginative. I mean, I know all MMOs have their measure of “kill ten rats” quests, and Wow is no different. But nowhere as much as this, even in the lower levels. And most MMOs manage to coat them in some manner of fun factor. Wow started mixing it up a lot in BC, and I never felt that the quests were boring in AOC, the quality of the narrative made sure of that. Here, at level 6 I was bored out of my skull doing the same quest over and over again: I kill “angry peasants” instead of “fallen demon souls”. Then I kill “bad breathed wolves” instead of “angry peasants”… Some might think “you’re being dishonest, it’s like that in every mmo” but I assure you that it’s usually not as bad.
The point is: most people will probably be pushed toward PVP, as I was. So let’s not dwell on the corpse of WAR PVE and move on to PVP.

Good: PVP is ubiquitous and rewarding.

Let’s be clear: there are world PVP objectives pretty much everywhere. This is very nice, except… well, the problem is that it’s not the most reliable thing (while leveling at least): if your faction controls them, there’s nothing to do. If ten players of the opposing faction are waiting for you there, you’ll just die again and again. And if a guy 10 levels above you gets in the mix, the fun vanishes completely. It can be frustrating but it’s all situational, and it changes from one minute to the next.
So I try that for a bit, and then jump into scenarios again; I realize that I’m earning “Reknown points” every time I PVP a bit. And when I have enough, I get a new Reknown rank. Cool, what’s this? Well, it’s like a level, except for PVP. I get a sort of special PVP talent tree where I can spend my PVP ranks and I’m allowed to buy really competitive gear for dirt cheap prices. It might start feeling like more of a grind at higher levels, but for now it’s absolutely painless; I feel rewarded and taken care of, thanks Mythic!
By the way, did I say that I also get a ton of XP doing PVP? And I do mean a ton: I level about twice as fast doing the same scenario over and over again. As I said, the quests felt like a horrible grind. However you turn it, the way to go seems to be PVP. Maybe even exclusively. It makes even more practical sense actually: since you gain reknown points in PVP and not in PVE, there is a danger that doing PVE is actually detrimental to your progression, because you do need those ranks…

Good: Random PVP battles and death penalty.

Whenever a couple of guys start fighting it out in the world, it puts a small “war” stamp on the minimap. This helps you take part in the battle straight away, which is nice.
And when you die, you come back with a 3 minutes damage penalty for PVP death and 15 minutes for PVE. In both cases, the debuff can be removed by paying a small amount of money, effectively making the death penalty a minor, optional money sink. Great system, best of both worlds (penatly if you want to get back in straight away, no problem if you want to leave).

Bad: Scenario queuing, specific incentives and gameplay.

It’s only fitting that the last comment is about about scenario mechanics.
At first I was surprised at how short the queues were to enter a scenario, but now I get it: there are actually three different scenarios in each “tier” of the game, and you can enter any of them if you’re in the level appropriate zone. There is an issue that makes it very hard for players to find the ones from the other races, but it’s easily fixable so I won’t get into it. The more important thing is that there seems to be a consensus that the “chaos” one is the only one worth doing. The other two take too long, so if you want the quick and easy gain, you do this one repeatedly. Couple that with the fact that there is no real incentive to play one over another (no badge or faction gain or anything like that), and you get a situation where 90% of the players enter one scenario and neglect the other two, making their queue time almost unbearable.
Another factor in this is the fact that entering one scenario takes you out of the queues for the others.  Whichever one is faster, you won’t be available for the others. Vicious circle.
All this can be fixed in a few different ways, but for now it’s a big problem.
Also, it seems I could only select the three scenarios from the tier zone I was in. Does that mean that I have to be in a specific zone if I want to play a specific scenario? Surely there is a way to do that differently, at least when you reach the level cap. I’ll assume there is, because it would make no sense otherwise.
While we’re at it, let’s talk about the gameplay specifically:
My impressions are probably very superficial, but I tried six of them and think I got a general reading for the early levels. Well, just like for the first one I tried, it seems the level design puts a lot of emphasis on general brawling and very little in strategizing. There are different types of objectives of course, some of them quite imaginative, but the battle usually ends up becoming a group of people running in a giant ball and piling on anything that moves. Some people like this I guess, but… Let’s say I hope I’m wrong.
One nice thing is that every battleground has a fifteen minutes timer. I don’t know what it says about the level design, but it’s often a lifesaver. Especially in the “Warsong Gultch/CTF” one, where turtling was even more of a problem than it is in Wow, if you can imagine.
I should also qualify all this by saying that there are probably a lot of people trying the game out who are not as… how should I put it? Let’s say: not as “committed” as they should be. I’ve been hearing that it gets better in higher levels, when all these guys have given up, and I can absolutely believe it.

Ok, I think that covers pretty much everything I wanted to talk about. There are a few more details I could mention, but this is already a very long review so let’s wrap it up.

Overall impresions

So I guess Warhammer is an ok game. It might even be better than ok: it’s easy to get into, reasonably polished (although not as polished as it should be), and it’s both vast and complex. There is really nothing majorly wrong with it. But there is nothing incredibly right with it either. I had fun, but not a ton of fun. It was easy to get into, but nothing really made me want to stay. There’s a lot to do, but unless you really like PVP you’re going to suffer.

And this is the main issue for me: WAR’s PVE is weak at best. They put all their eggs in the PVP basket. That’s probably fine for some people, but I need PVE to be the main thing in my games. Honestly, before I gave up on PVE I was having a hard time even logging back in, and I only did it for this review. Things were moving slowly, and playing the game was plain boring. It got a lot better when I finally started focusing on PVP.
But I’m sorry to say that I wasn’t really grabbed by that either. This is starting to be a pretty bleak picture, but even after 15 hours of play time I didn’t have a problem with the idea of never logging in again. And even though PVP isn’t really “my thing”, I do PVP a lot in Wow, so you can’t say I’m completely foreign to the idea.

Now I’m fairly certain that some people will be very happy with it; I’m sure that higher level PVP and RVR are awesome. I can see it from here: fighting back and forth to take objectives that will allow you to capture a tower, then advance a bit more into enemy territory, capture another point to establish a back base to the main town, and finally enter the city and conquer it… That has to be a rush. But I’m afraid it’s not my rush.
And I honestly don’t think that people who like Wow as a whole are going to enjoy Warhammer for a very long time. I will even go as far as to say that this game won’t even maintain a tenth of Wow’s numbers. It started strong, but I can see subscriptions dropping to (a lot) less than a million very soon. I might be proven wrong of course, but that’s my silly prediction.

And hey, don’t cry over it either: “less than a million” is still several hundreds of thousands, and that’s not really a bad number…

Verdict: Try it out, but don’t get your hopes up. At all.

NB: As you can see, I won’t grade games here; they are too subjective. We don’t grade movies or music, why grade games?  If you want the quick and dirty, the overall impressions and verdict speak volumes.
October 3rd, 2008