Hello and welcome to the second of our Clash of Fans write-ups. This week we'll be getting together in pairs (virtually) and forcing each other to play a beloved game. Then we'll chat about what we made of it all. Next up is World of Warcraft and Apex Legends!
World of Warcraft
Emma: The idea with Clash of Fans is for everyone to play a game they haven't tried before, but I must admit I have somewhat bent the rules on this one. I was actually introduced to World of Warcraft in a university games history seminar, of all things, as an example of an MMO with a declining player population – something which I'm sure horrified Oli when I told him.
Anyway, it's been good to revisit the game on my own terms, and with more time. I used to be a big Star Wars: The Old Republic player a few years ago, so I've enjoyed having a look at where all those MMO mechanics came from.
I suppose we'd better start with character creation so you can judge my choices: I'm really sorry Oli, but I couldn't bring myself to pick Horde. They seem like they're trying very hard to be edgy. I also wanted to try out the Worgen race, who seem like they're troubled but come out fighting for the "good" side, and therefore achieve a more balanced level of moodiness. I'm sure there'll be something in the lore to disprove that point.
Even though the character creation is pretty limited compared to current-day titles, I do love how you end up getting so invested in your player-character, and almost put a part of yourself into them. I got inspired by the Worgen race to imagine my character as a sword-wielding, brooding she-wolf warrior – which is unusual for me, as I usually go for sneaky types. Now all I need is a proper cloak.
Fun fact: when I was about 14 and the Cataclysm expansion released, I used to draw fan art of those moody Worgen… even though I wasn't allowed anywhere near World of Warcraft at the time. Maybe it was meant to be.
Oli: So, yes, I do feel very old right now, thanks. Even "games history" being a thing makes me feel old. But while WOW's player population may have been declining then, and certainly still is, the game is still massive and has seen off every challenger in the interim, including The Old Republic. In your face, student Emma and her stupid stuffy games history professor.
Sorry. Nothing, maybe not even Nintendo, makes me come over more fanboy than this game. Is that a self-justification mechanism to defend the literal years of playtime I have sunk into this MMO? Probably, but that's not just it. It's telling, I think, that you felt so invested in your character and the Worgen race so early on – it must be something about the game's art and simple but effective storytelling style that really hooks you in and encourages role-playing. In my head, my first character, a troll warrior, was a sort of clumsy eccentric who didn't really want to be a warrior (because I didn't – I was asked to roll one by my friends). You're probably right about the Horde being the embarrassingly emo choice, but it is the choice I made 15 years ago and I live by it now. These people – orcs? zombies? cow-folk? – are my people. They're my brothers and sisters. The sense of belonging is just so strong. Humans disgust me. Don't even get me started on gnomes.
Every time Wes and I have a fun, nostalgic chat about WOW, there comes a point where I remember he played Alliance and I just feel very disappointed in him. It's sad.
Anyway, how did you get on once you started playing? I remember the Worgen starting area being pretty action-packed and fun – a far cry from the pre-Cataclysm dustbowls where you had to kill boar for a million hours to get to level 10. (I should have made you play WOW Classic, shouldn't I…)
Emma: I'm with you on the humans – the other choices are so much more imaginative, why on Earth would you pick something so bland?
My feelings on Gilneas are decidedly more mixed. The rainy setting and Victorian London vibes are fantastic, even if the whole lockdown situation is a little close to home right now. I love how deliciously chunky the art style is, the scale means you feel quite small next to everything, and I spent some time just wandering through houses to admire the interior design. There's also something rather magical about how the areas transform once you've handed in a quest. That square you were once strolling through? Poof! It's now a battlefield, and everything's on fire.
On the flip side: good lord that's a lot of fetch quests. I know this is like complaining a beach has too much sand, as MMOs are built on grind, but it's made me realise SWTOR did a better job of disguising the fetch quests behind story beats – or at least providing big narrative pay-offs at the end. There weren't really any characters I cared about in the starting area for WOW, so when the area flooded and it was supposed to be this big narrative moment, my reaction was "meh". Although I did burst out laughing at the wild camera movement to convey the drama of the invading armada, it was just so charmingly clunky.
Oli: Yeah, I can imagine that stuff is quite a lot more gauche than I remember it. At the time it was a big leap forward for storytelling in the game. A strange part of this game being such a big part of my life – and just so big – is that I really struggle to see it in the context of other games. I just see it in the context of itself. Recent expansions will make Gilneas look as old-fashioned as Gilneas made the game at launch look, but that doesn't mean they actually feel modern.
And if you're looking for characters to care about, you might be looking in the wrong place. The game has some lovely quest lines and the grand sweep of the story is quite exciting in places, but it doesn't have a lot of room for characters.
As for fetch quests… I've played so much WOW I find the repetition soothing. I love the grind, I don't need it to be disguised. It annoys me when I'm just walking backwards and forwards, but give me 10 monsters to kill in a metronomic fashion on the way and I'm happy. I am Pavlov's gamer.
One thing I will say is that the starter area isn't all that representative of what's beyond it. Not that there's less grind – there's more, so much more. But the slightly awkward way the storytelling and quest mechanics sit next to each other gets smoothed away, and the delivery feels much more natural. The game becomes much more about exploring its vast maps, too, which is one of the things it's best at.
Emma: I think the fetch quests would also be much more bearable if I was playing with someone else – soloing WOW isn't exactly a natural way to play it, so I'll give it the benefit of the doubt for that! It's a shame I couldn't get to the stage where I could try a raid party, as I always wanted to have my own Leeroy Jenkins moment.
We haven't talked about the actual combat mechanics yet, although I think I only really tried the most basic moves of all, which were varieties of bonking people on the head with a mace. It does get to the point where you figure out an order for your moves, and it feels great when that clicks: charge in, lay down a few smacks, and then bring out the more powerful moves and a finisher. I can understand how this makes the grind feel far more satisfying, particularly as one of my moves worked from jumping quickly from one battle to the next, and I had to figure out that time window. It turns out MMOs are part rhythm game: this is my take for the day.
Oli: That is a good and correct take. And yes, although it's very basic at the start of the game, you've started to get a sense of what makes the game so hypnotic, and so good. Above all WOW has brilliant RPG classes, with expertly designed skills that are really satisfying to use. So once you get into the groove with your rotation, and start to learn how to optimise it – and learn to use situational skills as well when things get a bit more complex – it's super rewarding.
WOW's dirty secret is that most people, most of the time, are playing it solo. The dungeons and raids are definitely the game at its best; large-scale raiding is seen as the pinnacle of the game, but I think it's the five-player dungeons that are better dynamically. If you can hang on to level 15, you'll get to try one. I think they're some of the best co-op gaming ever, even if players tend to rush through them a bit these days. But yes, questing is mostly done solo and is tuned as such.
That said, the best times I've ever had in the game have been questing with one friend. There's just so much to discover, such a varied and exciting world, and it's great doing it in company. If I could persuade you to keep playing, I'd say this: try a dungeon, and get to a point where you can really start to explore the landmasses. The environment art is incredible in its simple, colourful way, there's no loading, and the world just goes on for ever.
I'd love to know how dated it feels to you. I think Blizzard has done a great job keeping a 15-year-old game feeling slick and playable, but that's got to have its limitations.
Emma: Alas, I must have stopped just before reaching the first dungeon – I think the quest which involved killing a bunch of spiders finally finished me off. I'd always thought of myself as being a bit of a weird loner when playing MMOs by myself, so it's reassuring to hear most people aren't playing as part of huge organised clans.
As for WOW feeling dated, it's probably the cutscenes where the game suffers most, as the older graphics and animation are more noticeable there. At one point you get bitten mid-quest and your character just flies across the room, which was both confusing and hilarious. The voice acting also gave me a chuckle, as it sounds so theatrical: particularly when the human version of a Worgen politely tells you you're out of range, and the werewolf version sounds like a chain smoker. I also heard that particular line way too much.
Despite all this, the art style is strong enough to stand the test of time, and the core gameplay loop still feels solid – so that's the most important thing for me. One of my university friends has offered to take me under her wing and teach me the ways of WOW, so I may be returning to it sooner than I thought. Time to try out one of those dungeons.
Oli: I'm scared. What's happening? It says 'Season 5' everywhere. It boots up with a trailer of a lady fighting some robots while having apparently Significant Flashbacks, but the game itself shows no evidence of having any kind of story. The UI is a confusing mess and keeps shouting at me about Twitch Prime. My character's lobby idle animation is all jerky. My PS4 Pro sounds like it's going to die in the next five minutes.
I don't do battle royale – I played Fortnite, like, once. In fact, I don't really do multiplayer shooters in any form. I have bad aim and I get performance anxiety. I don't find them relaxing or fun, I find them stressful. Apex Legends isn't really helping me get over this.
I get why the game has been set up like this – it's all about reducing the number of button presses between the player and a match. But it makes for a bewildering first impression. The tutorial covers the controls but otherwise isn't very helpful, and I have to root around to get basic information such as what each character's abilities are. It doesn't feel welcoming at all. Also, while the characters look cool, I find the game's art style in general very hard to read. I'm squinting at pickups to figure out what they are, and one part of the map looks much like all the others to me.
I'm sure it'll click soon, but as someone who usually plays very different kinds of games, it's remarkable to me how unwelcoming this is to a first-time player.
Following your advice, Emma, I picked Gibraltar, the tanky one, for my first match. I was matchmade with a Bloodhound but for some reason the third member of our trio never joined. I just followed Bloodhound around like a total liability, getting shot, staring blankly at pickups for ages and not knowing what my abilities were for. I felt bad for my partner. We managed 6th, though!
Emma: I can't imagine how confusing it must be to drop into Apex Legends' lore right now. Because it's a battle royale and nothing is permanent, Respawn mainly develops the story through trailers and tidbits on the website, all of which means it's harder for new players to catch up. I'd recommend a trip to a wiki if you want to read up on the latest Loba/Revenant drama (it's pretty good), but you can absolutely survive without. Although you should absolutely watch the video where Forge gets… introduced.
Apex has definitely caught a lot of flak for not being particularly beginner-friendly, in part because it's just so fast and the encounters are super intense – although I believe Respawn introduced skill-based matchmaking to try to help new players. I'm hoping the in-match UI will click soon, too, as I think it takes a few games for your brain to figure out, and then things suddenly seem rather simple. Although it may take you far longer to figure out how to use the abilities tactically. I think I'm still figuring it out for some characters.
Saying that, please do keep trying new legends, as there's a playstyle for everyone. My personal favourite is Pathfinder, as flinging yourself through the air and bursting into battles via zip-line is just so much fun. I love that chaotic energy.
Although you've been having issues with the UI, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on the ping system: it's contextual and means you can communicate without the need for voice chat, which is such a life saver (particularly for women – no more toxic conversations, hurray). How have you found it?
Oli: Ping is absolutely brilliant. It's a masterstroke. I'm not using it with confidence myself yet, but having teammates use it to point out pickups and enemies, or just set waypoints, is awesome. I don't love voice chat at the best of times, but I often can't use it at home, so I love that Respawn has found a way to make that level of teamplay available without voice. That's a big plus for accessibility.
I'm feeling much better after my second match, mostly because WE WON. This is now the best game ever.
I still wasn't any good, especially at the shooting – we were totally carried, by a Bloodhound again – but I used my abilities at sensible times, got a couple of kills and a revive, and it felt good, man. Partly we were just lucky and didn't really encounter anyone for a long midsection of the match. I haven't got used to the pacing of battle royales, yet – often, you're not really doing much, and yet this is helping you win as the other teams wipe each other out. It feels weird.
The game handles beautifully – no surprise from Respawn. I love the mantling and the slides and the guns feel great to fire. And yes, encounters are fast, but you've got the bleeding out mechanic to give you a bit of a chance to rally as a team, which is a nice touch.
I have mixed feelings about it being teams only. To begin with this stressed me out, as I prefer to learn a game without the pressure of strangers depending on me. But actually, it makes it much easier and more accessible if you can spread the load a bit, doesn't it? And it adds a nice sense of camaraderie to what would be a pretty alienating experience otherwise.
Emma: The sliding is so good! I love it so much, in fact, that I've inadvertently started sliding around in other shooters – my squad mates noticed me doing this around corners in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare a couple of times. Apex seems to be one of the few battle royales where there's no fall damage, which may seem like a small thing, but it means you don't have pointless (and annoying) deaths from accidentally falling off things. It's much more exciting to be shot by someone, right?
Funnily enough, Respawn actually tried a solo mode for Apex as a limited-time event a while back, and for me (and Respawn) it really didn't work. Without teammates you lose the communication of the ping system, which as you mention, somehow wordlessly forms bonds between you and your squad before the fighting has even begun. You also end up dying quickly in situations where you can't even react, which is particularly annoying in a battle royale where you have to re-queue rather than just respawn. No second chances.
Having a team means you have the added drama of revives, and also respawns – a system which Apex was first to introduce among the big battle royale games, with Fortnite and Warzone later doing their own versions. I don't know if this has happened to you yet, but on occasion you can find yourself collecting the respawn banners of your two dead squadmates and sprinting to the nearest respawn beacon. It becomes a tense game of parkour and stealth at that point, and adds another layer to the storytelling in each match. It just makes it so much more memorable.
And congratulations on your win – now you'll always be chasing the next one. Particularly as Apex puts your name in flashing lights around the arena.
Oli: I noticed about fall damage and breathed a sigh of relief, yeah! I haven't clicked with the map for this game – it doesn't feel like a place I'm excited to be – but they have made getting around it feel liberating and fun with the ziplines and stuff, and I appreciate that.
I have been respawned but I haven't done it for anyone else yet. I don't think I could take the responsibility.
After feeling like I had got somewhere with Gibraltar, I tried Wraith. Having an alarm when you're targeted is a really clever idea for a passive skill – I am digging the skill design in this game. If anything is going to get me to come back, it will be experimenting with all the different legends. I didn't get on so well with Wraith though, and had a couple of strange matches where nothing happened for ages and then our squad got wiped out in a flash. It feels really frustrating. It also feels like it's going to take me an age to get any good at combat, because it actually forms only a tiny proportion of the time you spend playing a match.
This probably appeals to me the most of the battle royale games – it's got that slick Respawn feel and the kind of refined design I like, with strong characters with interesting abilities. I also feel like I understand the appeal of battle royale much better after my win! But I don't know if I could dedicate serious time to these games. They're too much of an emotional rollercoaster for me. Too much stress. Now I need to go and soothe my cares away with a spot of repetitive grind in World of Warcraft…