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A tale of two fantasy worlds

Two of the most highly anticipated role-playing games, "Everquest II" and "World of Warcraft," are duking it out for gaming dominance. MSNBC's Denise Ono gets in touch with her inner orc.
A Night Elf battles an unfriendly bear in this screen shot from "World of Warcraft."
A Night Elf battles an unfriendly bear in this screen shot from "World of Warcraft."
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Yesterday was a bad day for me. First, I fell to my death off a huge tree answering a random question from a complete stranger. A little while later, I got stepped on by a giant who took a sudden dislike to me simply because I shot him in the back with a bow and arrow. Fortunately, with the assistance of some helpful passers-by, I was able to recover from both incidents with little long-term harm.

Also fortunately, all this happened not in the real world, but in virtual ones. Got a few hours -- or weeks? Two of the most highly anticipated games in the massively multiplayer online role-playing genre were released last month, making this a fine time to get in touch with your inner orc.

Pitted in head-to-head competition for gaming dominance are "Everquest II" from Sony and "World of Warcraft" from Blizzard. Each costs $50 up front, with a monthly charge of $14.99.  In the first few weeks of release, both report subscriber bases in the hundreds of thousands.  So, which one is right for you?

The original “EverQuest” burst onto the computer gaming scene in early 1999. It wasn’t the first massively multiplayer game, but it definitely caused gamers to take notice. With hordes of dedicated players, it eventually spawned eight expansions and several other incarnations, including versions for the PlayStation 2, wireless phones and even a tabletop pen and paper game. It was followed by a flood of similar massively multiplayer games by several different companies.

The Warcraft universe debuted in 1994 with the single-player strategy game “Warcraft: Orcs and Humans.” Several best-selling sequels and expansions followed. Blizzard, which also released the highly acclaimed “Starcraft” and “Diablo” games, has had titles with online multiplayer capabilities before, but it is a newcomer to the massively multiplayer field. They do, however, have the advantage of a pre-existing storyline and a very loyal fan base.

Both titles borrow heavily from the granddaddy of all fantasy games, “Dungeons and Dragons,” which introduced the foundation on which most role-playing games are based. And as with “Dungeons and Dragons,” the games owe a lot to the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien. If you’ve seen the “Lord of the Rings” movies, the orcs, elves, dwarves and goblins in both worlds will seem fairly familiar.

Hardware requirements
Both games are graphically intensive and require a pretty hefty computer as well as a reliable Internet connection. They’re playable over dial-up connections, but I recommend broadband (cable or DSL) access if you don’t want to tie up the phone line in your house.

For "EverQuest," minimum system requirements include a Pentium III 1GHz processor or higher, 512 MB of RAM, a 3D video graphics card with at least 64 MB of RAM and seven gigabytes of storage space. The game is only available for PC.

The minimum requirements for "Warcraft" are a bit lower: A Pentium III 800 MHz or higher processor, 512 MB of RAM, A 3D video graphics card with at least 32 MB of RAM and four gigabytes of storage space. A Mac version is also available.

I tested both games on a Pentium 4 3.06 GHz processor with 1 gigabyte of RAM, a 3D video card with 256 MB of RAM and plenty of hard drive space.

"Warcraft" ran flawlessly, even with some of the graphic options turned up high. "EverQuest" was unplayable at the highest settings, but offered many options to improve performance.

Creating your online persona
Visually, "EverQuest" and "Warcraft" are very different. The characters in "EverQuest" have a fairly realistic look to them, while "Warcraft’s" are more cartoon-like.

In addition to the character’s race and gender, you can customize the hairstyle, hair color, skin color and facial features. "Warcraft's" customization is fairly limited, but the different races are highly stylized and easy to recognize. Unlike other games in the fantasy genre, you can choose to play traditional villains such as orcs (in "Warcraft," they are a noble race of warriors) or the undead.

"EverQuest" goes quite a bit further by allowing for the customization of height, body style and the fine tuning of facial features such as eyebrows and chins. Unfortunately, the subtle differences aren’t very noticeable, especially if you've turned down the graphic options for better performance.

In their world
In "EverQuest," new characters start off on a ship headed to the main continent. The ship is actually a tutorial to get players acquainted with the basics of movement and interacting with objects and other characters. You’re soon off the boat and on the “Isle of Refuge,” another interim step before you reach the main areas. The isle serves as a learning area where your young adventurer can learn how to do in-game quests which become essential later on. Players can only reach a certain level before they must leave the island for further progress. One of the final quests your character receives requires you to work with a group of players to accomplish the goal, a sign of things to come.

"Warcraft" begins with similar introduction quests, but is missing the basic movement and interaction tutorial. What it does provide, however, is a lot of background and history of your character’s race and quite a bit of guidance in the early career of your character. Similar to "Everquest," the starting area is isolated, but it’s not immediately apparent. The area is so large that I initially thought I was on the main continent. The quests encourage you to explore the map and combat the many different creatures you find in your travels. Once your character has sufficient experience you can venture out into the larger realm.

Social interaction and game play
The main draw of a massively multiplayer games is the ability to interact with characters being controlled by real people rather than a computer program. At any time there can be thousands of other players on the same server.

This is where "EverQuest" has the edge. Once you get out of the beginner areas, you’ll have to team up with others to complete most quests. Oftentimes, these adventures can take hours to complete. Additionally, the world of "EverQuest" can be a bit intimidating and confusing, forcing you to ask more experienced players for hints or guidance. Because of this, the player-to-player chat on "EverQuest" is very active (and often colorful).

On the other hand, "Warcraft" is initially more intuitive and many of the quests can be completed alone. Grouping with other players, at least in lower levels, is purely optional. I’ve seen occasional banter and a couple of questions, but not nearly as much communication as "EverQuest."

However, "Warcraft" also doesn’t require the high time commitment: It's often possible to finish a task in the time it would take you just to find a group in "EverQuest." "Warcraft" is also a much faster-paced game, allowing for shorter periods of down time between battles and lower penalties for death.

A side note to parents: Players can interact freely with each other. As with all forms of Internet communication, you should be aware of what your child is doing and who they are chatting with online. Both games are rated "T" for teen.

How to choose
The time commitment is probably the largest differentiation between the two games. "EverQuest" is clearly more suited for someone who plans on playing every night for hours on end and "Warcraft" is more accessible to the casual gamer, but both games make allowances for either type of player.

The system requirements are another factor. If your computer is a bit older, "EverQuest" may give you some troubles. And if you’re a Mac user, "Warcraft" is your only option.

But if your PC is up to snuff, both do a good job of keeping things fun and interesting day after day. That’s important, because unlike most other games, massively multiplayer ones have to convince you to pay out every month.