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The Digital Continuum: Memoirs of a WAR beta tester

Kyle Horner

I've given my thoughts on the Dark Elf section of Warhammer Online, but now that the whole NDA is lifted I can finally speak about my experience with the beta as a whole. I've been in it for a long time. A really long time, in fact. We're talking about, well, since the thing started. Which gives me something more to say than the typical tester talking about this game. In my time interacting as a member of the beta community with Mythic -- concerning Warhammer Online, of course -- I think I've seen more progress made on any MMO in the span of about a year than I have in any other in beta. And I've been in a lot of them.

So what's the big deal? New MMOs are always facing the issue of going up against World of Warcraft's several years of polishing. Everyone has always wondered what it would take to deal with that issue, too. Mythic seems to have decided it will take raw, unadulterated determination. The kind that a child displays when presented with the opportunity to have a new toy. It also helps to have a license that Blizzard themselves once attempted to acquire because of its depth. Ironic? Only if WAR really does take a big chug out of the World of Warcraft milkshake.

Then again, that's implying that the MMO market is like a piece of food, that it's finite. It certainly is not. If anything, the MMO market is more like a kid going through school looking for cute girls to date. The girls in this metaphor are subscribers and much like girls in school, they become more varied and available throughout different levels of schooling. It's not a perfect metaphor, but you get the idea. It's a progressive industry, with more milkshakes than can be drank.

Anyhow, back onto my experience with the WAR beta over the last year plus. When I first got in, I wasn't writing as a part of the excellent team at Massively. I was however a long-time gamer and lover of MMOs, as I still am today, obviously. When I received the notification email, my heart lurched back as if it were placing itself into a slingshot, then fired against my ribcage and exploded into billions of tiny joyous heart pieces. It was, for the lack of a more interesting word: shocking.

Like I said before, I've been in a lot of MMO betas, but never this early on. It was only June of oh-seven, this beta practically just started! So I made my account and began downloading the client right away. It took some time, but I managed to download, install and patch it. Keep in mind that I'd played some Greenskins and Stunties at PAX06 before this, so I kind of knew what to expect. Or so I thought, at least. I sort of forgot that about eight months had passed since I last played the game. The build they were showing in here was already much, much further along than the PAX demo.

One thing I really want to stress is how impressed I've been with Mythic's willingness to show their game early and often. If you had went to an event Mythic was booked at, you probably would've seen WAR running. A lot of developers don't want to do this for various reasons. The biggest being graphical prejudices before the game even ships. It always makes me feel more secure in being excited for a title when a developer allows the public to get its grubby hands on the controls. In this case, my dirt-caked hands. Not that I eat dirt, I just, uh... it's useful.

So I played a few times a week for several months. Progress was made, we got to start trying out the Chaos and Empire content after a couple months of Greenskins and Stunties. I was anticipating playing the Dark Elves soon, although wanted to also get back to the Greenskins, also. You see, Mythic likes to be very focused with their testing. I've been in various betas where a developer just continually adds content, but leaves the old stuff. This often ends up in the overall game feeling uneven. You'll notice WAR doesn't really have that problem. The polish-level is pretty high across the entire game, with a few exceptions here and there. I'm hardly claiming perfection, but merely consistency.

Eventually we got to play the Elves, but we only had access to some of the classes. In fact, throughout the entirety of the beta I never got to play the Black Guard. So when Mythic says they couldn't get the Black Guard to be fun or to feel right, it wasn't due to player feedback as far as I know. I'm not upset at them for pulling those classes (at least not anymore) but I do think they need to get them back into the game, stat. We'll get to my thoughts on that a bit later, though.

So, there was a short break in the beta, at the end of last year. It was to give the team some time to dig in, make changes and also take a break for the holidays. Mythic works really hard, but they don't seem to deny their employees contact with their families. They're not the Men in Black or anything, after all. Well, maybe Paul Barnett is one of those guys. He seems like he knows something that he's not telling us about.

(Barnettoid: It seemed pretty apparent that some of the in-game voices during beta where from Paul Barnett. I could be wrong on this, but they sounded so uncannily like him at times that I really have to question it.)

When the beta did come back last January, I went through the whole download process again since the build was completely updated. It was astonishing what the people at Mythic had done in just a couple of months. The game was leaps and bounds better than whatever it was I played previously. I put down my reserve down the next day.

I don't claim to be a fanboy of any game or developer, really. Well, except most games made by Valve, but this is the wrong venue for that. However, when it comes to WAR, Mythic may just have me considering carrying one of those pointy baseball flags for them, or something to that extent. Every month or two after the beginning of this year the game continued to make leaps in different areas. Class balance, RvR changes, graphics, performance, user interface. You name it, Mythic improved it substantially. I can't tell you how many times I'd see worries posted online about certain aspects of WAR not being lived up to, only to be able to say nothing to refute them. And while many bold concepts were dropped from the game, plenty of things were delivered upon.

Avatar aspects slowing changing as a character leveled? Gone. No Orcs getting bigger each level, which was too bad since that was a very cool idea. Black Guard/Knight of the Blazing Sun? Gone, they were mirror classes and I really loved their individual flavors. (Please bring them back, Mythic!) Choppa/Hammerer? Gone, too. I uh, really just want the Choppa back. Sorry, Stunties. Now, as far as the four cities go, I can actually understand the choice to hold off on them after playing a bunch of the current cities' content. The cities are incredibly full of delicious content meat. If a city in any other MMO is a song or two, then a city in WAR is a small album complete with an overarching story throughout.

I want to end this with a hopeful thought. While the current lack of some really cool classes does indeed suck more than mutated leech on a eyeball, they could be back sooner than we think. With the launch of the game, Mythic's team has to focus on supporting the live game through bug fixes and maintenance. However, I'm hoping that they don't slow down their content churn, quite possibly the most important aspect of live support. At least not until they add previously cut content back into the game. If they keep up with the pace they've had for most of the beta, then we're talking Black Guards and Choppas in before years' end ... possibly. I also think we could see more people flock to WAR than expected. After all, the amount of sales Age of Conan saw in its first month proved that people are looking for something to replace WoW right now. Then again, Wrath of the Lich King is coming sooner this time around. It's really all conjecture, but I think Mythic's determination -- if kept up -- will surprise a lot of people wondering where the game will plateu.

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