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Game of the Year: World of WarCraft

As we hand World of WarCraft our 2004 Game of the Year award, we have only two questions: What is Blizzard Entertainment smoking? And where can we buy some?

Because we want some. We want whatever it is that enables these big-brained übergeeks, working in a business park in Irvine, CA, to once again fashion a game world so insidiously addictive, so rich in imagination, so fun and beautiful and funny and charming that we have no desire to ever log out and resume our real lives. It’s a hallmark of every game Blizzard makes, and though the odds were against it more than ever this time, World of WarCraft once again proves that it is a design house without peer, as the game is every bit as good as, or better than, anything it’s ever done. And that’s a freakin’ miracle.

Just as it did with Diablo for RPGs and WarCraft for strategy games, Blizzard has taken a genre that was primarily a domain for the hardcore—in this case, online massively multiplayer games—and found a way to bring it to the masses without sacrificing its integrity. MMORPGs have been immensely popular before World of WarCraft, for sure, with games such as Ultima Online and EverQuest drawing hundreds of thousands of players. But these games have always preached to the converted. They’ve always spoken in code, wrapped themselves in the arcane, reveled in their difficulty. But World of WarCraft does what Blizzard games always do: It de-dorkifies the genre and makes it understandable and appealing to everyone. Though the rap on Blizzard is that it only synthesizes and refines what others have done, rather than revolutionize or innovate, it’s a bum rap, especially this time. You want revolutionary? How about an online game that’s actually more fun than work? That rewards players instead of punishing them? That stays compelling even hundreds of hours in? That’s World of WarCraft. That’s our Game of the Year.

There is a generosity of spirit at work here. In translating its immensely popular strategy franchise to an online world, Blizzard has ensured that everyone should want to come along for the ride, with heaping dollops of gameplay for newbies and “l33t” dudes alike. The generosity extends to the game’s technical aspects as well, with extremely forgiving system requirements and even Mac compatibility—a rarity these days. The coup de grace here is that despite the relatively low-end requirements, and despite the fact that quite a few other games went out of their way this year to take advantage of all the latest bells and whistles in the highest-end 3D cards, World of WarCraft was, in terms of art direction, the most beautiful PC game released in 2004 by far. Eschewing 3D photo-realism for a “painterly” look that brilliantly captures the feel of the strategy games, Blizzard has created a stunning-looking fantasy world—with breathtaking vistas and sunsets, majestic mountainsides and buildings—that is a never-ending wonder to explore.

That World of WarCraft beat all our other nominees is further testament to its greatness, given the incredible competition this year. Sid Meier’s Pirates! is the year’s most purely entertaining single-player game, a remake of a classic that completely holds its own, a glorious amalgam of strategy, action, and puzzle solving that kept our editors up all night, as all great games do. The Sims 2 improved upon the original in every way, an impressive achievement given that the first game is a design masterpiece. But the new graphics, the goal-oriented gameplay, and the ambitious foray into creating family trees knocked us out. Half-Life 2, everyone’s default pick to win this year, is indeed a fantastic roller coaster of a ride, not as great as the original but still leagues above most other shooters. And the upstart City of Heroes came within one mere vote (and hours of arguing) of beating World of WarCraft with its fantastic superhero-based MMO gameplay. It’s an outstanding game.

But in the end, World of WarCraft gets the victory because it’s the game that reached the furthest, had the most to overcome (including our expectations), and still managed to hit it out of the park. It’s the crowning achievement to date of a PC gaming house that seems functionally incapable of producing anything less than great. At a time when everyone continues to wring their hands over the future of the platform, when publishers are cutting down on PC development and sticking us with crappy ports, Blizzard, as if oblivious to all that noise, released an awesome gift of a PC game and proved once again that the only thing ever holding us back is our own imagination.

Past Winners

Kampgruffe (SSI)

2003 Knights of the Old Republic (BioWare)

2002 Grand Theft Auto III (Rockstar)

2001 Operation Flashpoint (Codemasters)

2000 The Sims (EA)

1999 Unreal Tournament (Epic)

1998 Half-Life (Sierra)

1997 Jedi Knight (LucasArts)

1996 Diablo (Blizzard)

1995 Gabriel Knight 2 (Sierra)

1994 X-COM (Microprose)

1993 Doom (Id Software)

1992 Links 286 Pro (Access)

1991 Civilization (Microprose)

1990 Wing Commander (Origin)

1989 Railroad Tycoon (Microprose)

1988 SimCity (Maxis)

1987 Empire (Interstel)

1986 Earl Weaver Baseball (EA)

1985 Ultima IV (Origin)

1984 Kampgruffe (SSI)

Nominees

City of Heroes

Half-Life 2

Sid Meier’s Pirates!

The Sims 2

PUBLISHER: BLIZZARD ENTERTAINMENT DEVELOPER: BLIZZARD ENTERTAINMENT

Copyright © 2005 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in Computer Gaming World.





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