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World of Warcraft

World Of WarCraft is big. That much could be expected from a developer whose games routinely pull in more preorders than many titles ever sell, but Blizzard's entry into the new wave of massively multiplayer titles casts a long shadow. The beta launch saw WOW fansites across the internet collapse in domino sequence under an avalanche of information-starved hits; there are 'US beta testers' with IP addresses from Argentina to the Ukraine; and at the time of writing there are accounts for sale on Ebay with bids at $350 (apparently it's a slow period).

Big in other senses, too: this is the result of four years of Blizzard's notoriously meticulous production, converging WarCraft's extensive backstory and the developer's previous experience with online multiplayer into a new look at a familiar world. That familiarity doesn't necessarily have to stem from experience with WOW's forebears - although Blizzard has helpfully provided a storyline synopsis on its website for newcomers - more if you ever had a soft spot for high fantasy.

WOW's visuals are a celebration of the genre, all exaggerated proportions and towering scale under a painted sky. It's an effective counterpoint to EQ2's rendering of a fantastic world in a realistic fashion, just as jaw-dropping in its splendour, and possibly even more virtual life-affirming in its artistry. Though players are given ample time to enjoy the dense scenery, it's not as a side-effect of the paralysing grind that has turned many away from MMOs past.

There's an immediacy of experience here that allows players to reap rewards from only an hour's play as opposed to 12-hour marathons: although given Blizzard's fiendishly precise appreciation of how to deliver addictive content, this is much like saying you can enjoy a bar of chocolate from eating only the first piece. Quests seldom conclude far from a lead into three more, a trainer offering a new skill and an unexplored vista just beyond the next ridge - all enticingly achievable if you were to put in just a little more time.

This pace is aided considerably by WOW's energetic combat, which follows the traditional MMO structure of a rhythmic trading of blows, but is so up-tempo as to suggest an action-RPG (not least Diablo). Strategy comes from recognising the right moment to counteract an enemy skill or launch your own without risk of interruption, and class-specific mechanics lend further tactical considerations.

Warriors, for example, must build up a 'rage' level through giving and receiving damage in order to power their combat skills, whereas the Rogue attacks form cascading combos that build up to finishing moves. The basic spellcasters fall back on the familiar battle plan of keeping foes at a polite distance while pelting them with eldritch harm, but more complicated magical classes have correspondingly eccentric behaviour - such as Shamans, who create totems on the landscape to provide magical effects. Further variation in characters' combat ability is provided by the Talent system, a hierarchy of modifiers - and ultimately new abilities - that allow specialisation beyond the already dense skill trees.

Currently only the Warrior and Mage classes have their Talents in place, with the others to be phased in over the course of the beta; also to be implemented is the much-demanded ninth character class, the Hunter, which has the ability to tame wild beasts as animal companions.

Even with these omissions, the hype that WOW already feels like a finished game isn't completely unfounded - what's most obviously still in the procress of development isn't so much the world (though the beta will naturally shape it further), but the interaction of the players within it, at least on the player- vs-player servers.

PvP is a necessary demand of both the fanbase and the WarCraft universe, which sees the Horde and Alliance factions at loggerheads. The current system has seen towns effectively shut down by high-level groups destroying NPCs, important quest destinations staked out by players preying on unsuspecting pilgrims, and powerful characters being near-unassailable even when outnumbered by slighter opponents. Though the first two are at least thematically fitting, it's an area of huge contention and may be Blizzard's trickiest balancing act.

However it resolves the war, there's certainly no shortage of craft.

World of Warcraft will be released for PC at the end of the year