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WoW Insider's PTR voice chat hands on

Mike Schramm

Voice chat is now available on the 2.2 PTR, so I downloaded the test realms, rolled up a gnome Warlock, and put on my Logitech headset to try it out. What I found was a pretty intuitive voice chat system that does most everything Blizzard promised to do, and will likely replace Teamspeak or Ventrilo for a lot of smaller guilds.

Unfortunately, it's complicated enough that it probably won't be extremely widespread-- players who haven't found the need to join up on voice chat yet probably still won't feel a need to do so. But for guilds who don't want to pay for a separate server and friends who group together often, the ingame voice chat should work just fine.

The rest of my impressions, including a complete walkthrough on how the chat system works, are after the jump.

The feature itself is easily set up, as long as you've got a microphone and drivers hooked up to your PC already (I only tested the chat on my Windows XP box, but Mac should work pretty much the same way). To set it up, you go into the newly retitled "Sound & Voice" menu from the options screen, where you're presented with two panes-- the old Sounds pane, and the new Voice pane.

From here you can do all kinds of things-- just check Enable Voice Chat at the top, and then you can choose your input and output sources (I ran both through my headset, as I like to hear the voices separate from the game sounds). You can adjust the microphone level, and record and playback yourself speaking to make sure it's working OK. On the other side, you can set the speaker volume, as well as lower the audio level when someone else is speaking (since I was using a headset, I set it to stay the same, but if you're hearing voices through the same speakers, you have the option to change it).

Unfortunately, that tooltip covers up the two other meters down there, but those are Sounds and Music meters, so you can separately adjust those options as well, if you like.

Finally, you can see that the voice chat can be set as either Push-to-Talk or Voice Activated (ie, anytime you start talking, it will send your voice out). Personally I prefer Push-to-Talk, and I was glad to see that was the default option-- nothing bugs me more than hearing things I don't want to over voice chat. You can also check the box to have the game play a sound when you hit the Push-to-Talk button, and you can bind that to whatever button you want-- the default is the ` button, and that worked well for me.

At this time, there is no General chatting, so either you have to be in a raid, group, or a custom channel. Once you get in one of those, voice chat is automatically enabled, and you can see that an icon appears by each group members' portrait. When you talk, a larger icon appears by your portrait-- you can see it near my gnome's portrait above. All in all, it works very smoothly (talking came through quick with my green connection), and sound quality is about the same as Teamspeak. There were a few issues-- I had no problem talking with someone who already had their mic setup, but Triunemoon here (who is actually WoW Insider's Ryan Carter) couldn't get his mic working, even though it did work over Ventrilo. So Blizzard still has a few problems getting certain mics to work-- I'd imagine that will continue on the PTR, and might even continue once the patch goes live, since there are just so many different mics out there.

So while it's easy to use if you get it working, getting it working is still not a super easy thing to do. And that, I think, will be enough to keep this from becoming a universal thing-- people in PUGs, whether they actually can't voice chat or whether they just choose not to, will still have an excuse for not having it set up. Guilds will be able to require it, I'm sure, but for makeshift groups and PUGs, I don't see this voice chat happening universally.

There is also a new Chat tab on the Social windowpane-- it shows all the chat channels you are in (not just voice chat, although that is shown by the little speaker icon next to the group you're voicechatting with), from Party to General to your own custom channels. It also shows everyone in that channel, so while a lot of people may not have been aware of the /chatwho command, people will now easily be able to see who is in which channels.

Strangely enough, even though the LookingForGroup channel is listed there, you can't join it by pressing the "Join" button-- you still have to actually flip yourself LFG to join that channel. But you can, for some reason, see who's in that channel without joining it. Not sure I understand the reasons for that, but maybe Blizzard is still working on it.

And if anyone causes a problem, muting them is as easy as opening the Social window, and right clicking their name. I'm a little disappointed that there aren't other options here as well-- we should be able to report and ignore players directly from this interface also. Maybe that will be added before the realms go live-- in the FAQ, Blizzard actually says that you should be able to ignore people from the menu, so maybe that's not done yet as well.

And creating a custom channel (you can see my "custom1" channel above) is as easy as hitting the "New" button. When you create a channel, you can name it, create a password for it (if you want), and you can choose to enable voice chat on it.

As far as I can tell, there is no way, however, to invite people to your custom channel from the Chat interface. So you still have to tell your friends to join the "nerfwarlocks" channel, and then they have to hit the "Join" button, and type the name in. It would have been really nice if you could right-click the custom channel, hit "Invite" and then chose the players you want to bring in, but there's no way to do that right now.

So what did I think overall? It's a good, robust system that will very likely keep a lot of midrange players from using separate programs for voice chatting. Super casual players who haven't jumped into a voice chat yet probably still won't feel the need to-- setting up the mic correctly (even before you get into the WoW client) is still going to be a barrier, and of course there's the social barriers of having your voice be heard by other players. If you haven't jumped that rung yet, the new voice chat system probably won't encourage you to do so.

And for bigger guilds (as in guilds with more than 40 players, like mine), my guess is that this system won't be enough. Sure, there's almost no reason to have more than 40 people in the same channel (and the Guild channel itself doesn't have voice chat), but one thing I like to do on Teamspeak is run around to the different groups and see how they're doing-- check in with the Karazhan group and see who they got for the Opera, or ask the Shadow Labs group how things are going in there with the new guildie. With this voice chat system, I can't chat with those groups at a glance, since you have to be in a group or raid to voice chat with the people in there. Not to mention that I can't tell you how many times someone's WoW client crashed on them during a raid, and we only knew what happened because they were still chatting with us on Teamspeak.

So Teamspeak and Ventrilo, in my estimation, have nothing to worry about. What's the point of this voice chat system, then? I think it will be huge for people who don't already have their own Teamspeak server, or for smaller guilds who don't want to pay for one. Good PUGs (as in, PUGs that consist of a few friends, or of a bunch of knowledgeable players from different guilds) will only get better, as people won't have to share their Vent info and coordinate all that madness. Some casual players may get more involved (and become better players), if they do make the jump to voice chat.

Players on both ends of the spectrum (super casual, and fairly hardcore) won't have a need for it. But at worst, WoW's new voice chat system will at least help midrange players coordinate their groups and strategies. And at best, just like Xbox Live, this voice chat system will be just another brick in the wall for bringing new types of social interaction into online gaming.

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