Review: World of WarCraft: Illidan

Illidan: World of WarcraftIllidan: World of Warcraft by William King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I was but a stripling, I used to dive into fantasy books and read them (devour them, really) in a single sitting. It was the best feeling in the world, to be so absorbed into a book that you only pull yourself away to change position on your bed or to take a bathroom back before diving right back into it. It’s a sort of reading I don’t get to do as often these days, whether because reading over one’s lunch break necessitates keeping one eye on the clock so you’re not late or because prolonged exposure to the Internet has shortened my attention span to the point where I can only dive in the shallowest of intellectual waters.

Regardless, “Illidan” was a return to those early days. I read it cover to cover and had a great time while I did.

Let me get a few things out of the way, however. Yes, this is a video game fiction tie-in novel. No, it doesn’t actually pass my personal litmus test for tie-in fiction (that the story be accessible enough that you can read it and enjoy it without being a fan of the game). Yes, that makes me horrifically inconsistent. No, I don’t care, because I’m not getting paid to do this and if you want foolish consistency, go find a hobgoblin. This book is for fans of the game. If you haven’t played World of WarCraft, particularly if you haven’t played the first expansion “the Burning Crusade,” you can skip this one. It’s an amazing WarCraft novel, but it’s a middling fantasy novel. There are plenty of other middling fantasy novels out there; I’ve even read and reviewed some of them. Feel free to keep scrolling.

For those that are still here, as I said, I loved this book. It’s the best damn WarCraft novel yet to be published; let me explain why.

Let’s rewind to 2007. It was a different era, to be certain. Bush II was still destroying the country and we were all blissfully unaware that the Great Recession was just around the corner. World of WarCraft had begun to measure its success as a video game not in how many units had been sold or how many subscribers were playing, but by its body count of how many players were so enthralled that they died playing it because they forgot to eat, sleep, or use the bathroom. When the Burning Crusade expansion was launched, we, the brave heroes of Azeroth, fought off a demonic invasion and plunged through the Dark Portal into the strange realm of Outland. After fighting through the demonic invasion, we . . . then proceeded to wage war against the minions of a guy whose in-game class was entirely devoted to hunting and killing demons, a guy who’d always been, in the previous WarCraft game, a misunderstood anti-hero who, while often seeming a villain, usually was TRYING to do the right thing. Wait, what?

In the years since, the developers at Blizzard have acknowledged that the story in the Burning Crusade expansion was thin. And it was, indeed, paper thin. Characters that were playable heroes and well liked in the previous game (WarCraft III) are suddenly villains and raid bosses, for seemingly no reason better than “just ’cause.” What could have been a tragic and compelling story (having to fight those characters despite identifying with them) instead becomes a joke when the answer to the question “why are we killing these guys” is “because we want their stuff.” A thin story, indeed, and you can tell the lesson was taken to heart because the next expansion went out of its way to give you reasons to want to take down its final boss, the Lich King.

So, “Illidan” the book creates a storyline about what’s happening with the pseudo-final boss of the Burning Crusade to explain what he was doing while waiting around for us to kill him. It also takes several of the more strange elements that went unresolved in the game storyline and creates compelling justifications for them, in particular explaining why, despite the fact that we saw Illidan training new demon hunters, we only ever encounter one of those demon hunters as a raid boss.

The fact that the book manages to take that old game experience and create a new, interesting context feels, well, rather magical. Rationally, I know that this is all retcon; a complicated bit of storytelling judo to try and make a narrative out of the tangled, inconsistent disjointed experience of the original game narrative. However, even though I know it’s all retcon and I know that the game designers weren’t planning any of this when they made that storyline, “Illidan” manages to create explanations that feel amazingly seamless. It fits together like a puzzle piece and the revelations have actually improved my memories of that ancient expansion. It felt rather magical, honestly.

There are still plenty of flaws in the book. Although the book spends most of its time on its own narrative, the beginning and ending are set to the events of WarCraft III and the Black Temple raid, and you can absolutely feel the shift when the game narrative takes the driver seat, and not for the better. The dialogue for WarCraft III in particular has aged horrifically and feels stilted and unnatural. Unfortunately, no amount of word judo can make those pieces fit into the puzzle, but thankfully they’re rather rare.

So while Illidan doesn’t begin or end on a strong footing, it still manages to satisfy when allowed to tell its own story. It does an amazing job of building excitement for the upcoming Legion expansion and in particular makes me eager to play the new demon hunter class. And so, while it has plenty of flaws and is by no means a perfect book on its own, I can’t help but feel that this is the best WarCraft book I’ve read. As for the rating and how I justify this one, we’ll just say that we’re grading on a curve.

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Review: World of Warcraft and Philosophy: Wrath of the Philosopher King

World of Warcraft and Philosophy: Wrath of the Philosopher KingWorld of Warcraft and Philosophy: Wrath of the Philosopher King by Luke Cuddy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked this book up after a friend recommended it to me in the wake of my review of “Halo and Philosophy: Intellect Evolved.” While I think this concludes my foray into pop culture philosophy for a while, I did enjoy this book considerably more than “Halo Philosophy.” The nature of MMOs as shared simulated spaces (alliteration intentional!) invites several intriguing discussions, especially with regards to the metaphysical. Furthermore, so much of what makes MMOs interesting is the people that play them, and even though a first person game like Halo is also multiplayer, it’s really in the MMO space that one can seriously consider questions of character, identity, and self.

As you might expect, not every essay in this book is going to impress, but there are some true gems. In particular, the essays on the relationship between the character and the self really intrigued me. I’ve played a wide variety of characters over the year, including characters of an opposite gender. Thus, I paid particularly close attention to the essay written by a male player who, rather unintentionally, “toured” as a perceived female gamer for several months.

Is this a book I’d recommend to a non-WoW player? Eh, probably not. The authors generally do a good job of not relying “too” heavily on the game terms, but the largest appeal of these pop culture/philosophy books is how the content of your favorite game (or show, or movie, or whatever) can become the fuel for a philosophical discussion. If you’re not already a WoW player, I’m not sure why you’d be interested in picking up a book about it. That said, this is a very solid philosophy primer and if you’re an MMO player (of any game, really), you’ll find something to mentally gnaw on.

Quick aside: it was a little silly, but I really enjoyed the chapters presented in WoW’s “0/1” quest tracker style, as well as the “+3 to intellect” for completing the chapter. It was a fun bit of attention to detail.

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Exploring Forgotten Lands

When I worked at GameStop, once or twice I managed to get a free copy of a game. They were usually promotional copies that were given out at manager’s conferences, the idea being that if you play and enjoy a free game, you’ll generate more sales through the enthusiasm you pass off to customers. I should note that this plan didn’t always work out if the game happened to be terrible.

I acquired several games like this during my few years there but there were a couple that I never got around to playing: Vanguard: Saga of Heroes and EverQuest II. The reason I never installed or played either game was twofold: first, both games came out during the darkest days of my World of WarCraft addiction, so the idea of playing another fantasy-themed MMO was neither appealing nor necessary. Second, both of these games required subscription fees. Even though the discs were free, I’d still have to pay to play; it wasn’t like getting a free Xbox 360 game where I could try it out at no cost to myself beyond time invested. For those reasons, my copies of Vanguard and EQII sat on my game shelf for several years, unopened and gathering dust.

Although I’m cured of my WoW addiction, every so often, I still get this strange, random urge to play an MMO for a little while. When this urge happens, I’ve found that the best way to satiate it, rather than reinstalling WoW is to try out one of the many, many MMOs that I ignored during their release due to the WoW addiction. Sometimes, this doesn’t end well: my brief time with Lord of the Rings: Online was uneventful and plain to the extent that even the promise of being a wizard loremaster wielding a sword and a staff together couldn’t hold my interest. I played for a few hours and then uninstalled the game.

Yesterday, the Vanguard box on my game shelf caught my eye. I’d read somewhere that the game had gone free to play, which meant I could try it out without having to pay anything. What the hell, I figured. I installed the game and made a Dark Elf Sorcerer.

Generally speaking, Vanguard is one of the many casualties that tried to compete with the WoW juggernaut and lost. I’m honestly surprised that there’s still support for it, when better loved MMOs like City of Heroes have been shut down. Maybe that’s the secret to Vanguard’s life-span. It’s not so popular that its maintenance costs outweigh the benefits of keeping it online. Or maybe Sony Online Entertainment (SOE) is just that determined to keep it going.

Coming into an MMO like this years after the fact is a somewhat surreal experience. Unlike returning to WoW, there is no nostalgia filter that colors your every experience. Things feel both new and old at the same time; familiar due to the mechanics that all MMOs now use and yet alien because you’ve never seen this class or this world. There’s also the feeling of stumbling upon something hidden, something that’s been passed over by the rest of the world. There are still people here having fun and enjoying their game. It’s their own little world in a way that the WoW juggernaut can’t be. Everybody knows WoW. Everybody has their Horde or their Alliance experience; you’re not unique or special there.

Playing Vanguard feels like being a virtual-world archaeologist. The mechanics are pure WoW: push button, kill stuff, talk to guy, kill more stuff. The fact that I can play a dark elf is a large draw for me, even though I realize, mechanically speaking, this isn’t really a big game play alteration. I’m a little bit curious to try out some of their other classes, particularly the Necromancer and the Blood Mage. The Blood Mage sounds especially cool: a vampiric sort of healer that restores her party members by siphoning life away from others.

Will I stick with Vanguard for long? Probably not. The reality is that I quit WoW because I was bored of WoW. I was tired of quests, tired of reputation grinds, tired of push-button, kill stuff mechanics. The MMO genre has stagnated into a Pavlovian treadmill: kill stuff to get better stuff that helps you kill more stuff. That was a fun cycle the first three times I ran it, but now I want something else. I want to do more in a virtual world than just kill things. I think back to my time with Ultima Online and how much fun I had playing interior decorator with my own house. I want gameplay that moves in that direction: world simulation instead of just theme-park experiences.

In the meantime, however, exploring Vanguard is an interesting experience. It feels like a forgotten land, not by virtue of its world design, but by the fact that this is a place that few gamers have wandered. There are 10 million+ gamers who know the world of Azeroth. I’ve spent more than my fair share of time there. I know all its lore. I know its conflicts. I know it and I’m bored because I know.

I don’t even know what the world in Vanguard is called and for a person whose two basic motivations in a game are exploration and the story, that’s a strong draw. So I’ll play and I’ll wander and I’ll find my way through a virtual world that few have known or likely ever will know.