World of WarCraft: The Burning Crusade
There Is A Life beyond the world as you know it I know because I've just been there. But right now I'm sitting in an office in Irvine, California, and sitting opposite me is Blizzard's creative director Chris Metzen, the man whose mind provides the motivation every time an orc raises an axe in anger. Every major nugget of Warcraft lore has passed through his hands - Frozen Thrones, Dark Portals, you name it. He's the man who gives meaning to your daily grind. He's also a full-on rock star wide grin, muscular build, dazzling necklace, chunky rings and Bono sunglasses. He's the closest man to Henry Rollins the games industry has. And I'm here to hear him talk Orc. "There's this guy called k Sargaris. He's a fallen titan and an extremely ill-tempered dude," begins Metzen as he cricks his neck. "Over the ages, he's gathered an army of demons that he calls the Burning Legion and he's set out to eradicate all life within the universe. As the Legion pass through the cosmos, they burn every world they encounter. They show up, destroy all sentient races, consume all magic, refuel and move on. Sargaris is pretty dedicated to wiping out all life and just becoming the ultimate god.
Beyond The Grind
Really? Yesterday my Night-Elf was doing some sexy dancing and killing giant lizards with a bloke from Yorkshire who was a bit worried because his dog had run off and hadn't come back yet. I struggle to see how this affects me...
But of course it affects me, it affects me hugely: level cap to 70! New race of Blood Elves! Mounts that can fly! I haven't been quite so happy since the man from Yorkshire's dog finally returned, apparently having rolled in something unpleasant. But to understand The Burning Crusade's greatness, we have to fully understand from whence it comes. For the uninitiated and if you haven't been worshipping at the Blizzard shrine throughout its days of top-down-ity, a little more exposition is required. Specifically an introduction to the concept of Outland.
"Boy, this is complicated. It's good, but it's complicated," restarts Metzen from somewhere behind his orange-tinted shades. "Outland is the remnants of the planet Draenor, the world the orcs came from in the first place; we saw a little bit of it in Warcraft II: Beyond The Dark Portal many moons ago. It was once a healthy place where the orcs lived. Ultimately, the Burning Legion showed up, took the orcs into their ranks and destroyed the planet. So now all that remains is a series of roughly continentsized rocks floating in the astral planes that we call the Twisting Nether."
It was from this barren place that a gate was opened through to Azeroth (much loved home of humans, dwarves and elves), the polluted orcs spilled through and much RTS malarkey ensued. Just like a certain famed village in Gaul that stood alone against the Romans, Azeroth became the first world to have ever successfully withstood the assault of Sargaris and his Burning Legion. The uneasy mix of Alliance and Horde remained, and the setting of the most successful online game of all time was assured. The Dark Portal, meanwhile, stood derelict, mournful and distinctly shut within a part of the World of Warcraft known as Blasted Lands. Shut, at least, until now.
We Are Not Alone
Outland, a world ripped asunder, is being designed for the upper echelons of players, those wanting to wade into the extra ten levels provided by the expansion with gusto until they hit the 70 mark and enter into a' mission that will provide them with a flying mount -a Nether Dragon, no less. Instead of being race-specific as they are in Azeroth, these flying beasts of the Nether Storm will be available to all - although they won't be able to survive back on home territory, so you can forget any pipedreams you may have of divebombing newbies on their first batride out of the UnderCity. However, what they can do is take you to all manner of hard-to-reach places, dungeons and secret areas as soon as you hit the mythical level of three score and ten.
Outland won't all be floating rocks and orange haze though: there'll be lush areas such as Zangar Marsh, and plenty of human and orc wreckage from the battles that raged on the past few occasions that the portal has been flung open. The story has it that Horde and Alliance alike are flooding in to deal with the Burning Legion, with than intrigued by the prospect of being able to trace their family tree and meet the ancestors. My own Night Elf, the sexy ElfieMoon, meanwhile, will want to have a stiff talk with chief elfin bad man Illidan in his Black Temple in Shadowmoon Valley. But, of course, this expansion isn't all about this new frontier: Blizzard isn't keen on emptying Azeroth of its high-level players, so there's tons of new content dotted around the place - not least with a spot of time-travel in the Caverns of Time.
Caverns Of What?
That's right, your WOW character is about to make an amazing journey through time and space to some of the most pivotal moments in Warcraft history - all thanks to a handy dungeon managed by a Flight of Bronze Dragons whose humdrum task is to police the timestream. Although they're clearly not very good at it, seeing as anyone of sufficient level (and owning the expansion pack) will be able to wander into their Tanaris lair, speed up to 88 mph and hurtle through history. You'll be there on the Black Morass the day the Black Portal was opened, before the land was blighted and split between the Blasted Land and the Swamp of Sorrows, with an environment being made pixel for pixel just as it was in Warcraft II. You'll be one of a party who rescue future orc leader Thrall from a distinctly non-ruined and highly turreted Durnhold keep. You'll even be present atop Mount Hyjal on the fateful day in Reign of Chaos when all the races joined together to put the boot into the wicked bad Archimonde.
Now, admittedly if you didn't get picked last for playground football, you might not be quite as turned on as I am by all this. However, you show me an undead player who doesn't go all a-quiver when they discover that you'll be able to visit the distinctly non-dismal red roofs of the Tarren Mill of the past, having ironic banter with NPCs that run along the lines of, "What a pleasant town. I'm so glad I'm not a zombie. Aren't you dear?", and I'll show you a WOW player who's dead on the inside.
But how can we have come this far without mentioning the Blood Elves? They're bad you know, bad to the bone. One quirky Blizzard employee informed me that they're essentially "crack addicts on magic", although this failed to make any impression on me since I was too busy feeling slightly guilty. Guilty that I find the female Blood Elf model slightly more attractive than my own lifepartner, the sexy ElfieMoon. Sorry dear. Looks like I'm turning Horde.
Located to the north of Eastern Plaguelands (you may have noticed some handily fallen giant trees that cross a local abyss in the vicinity), the Blood Elf land of QuelThalas and its capital of SilverMoon City are designed to be at complete odds with pre-existing Horde starting points like the harsh and arid Durotar. It's ornate, beautiful and slightly tinged with the trappings of the sinister as Blood Elves go about their business; experimenting with nature, trapping demons in vials and attempting to extract their magical juices.
As the first Horde race that isn't ugly or disfigured, you can bet your boots that a part of their role is to sort out the distinct Horde-Alliance imbalance on most servers, which suggests that the unannounced second noob race could well be somewhat beast-like. All I know is that I really, really want to be one of these sexy elves, and with its three zones of tainted forests, sunny isles and a high level area with an unhappy group of local trolls, its highly likely that a heap of other players will feel the same way. Any swing to the blood-red left, however, will be countered by the rolling live updates (of which there are many planned), and a raft of other Battlegrounds, Dungeons and Raidzones being packaged with the expansion.
What Blizzard really wants though, is to make Horde and Alliance hate each other a bit more - and it's plotting out the Outland segments of The Burning Crusade to up ante in the competition between the forces of good and evil. "We But let's not ponder on that: really want to get back into the theme Blood Elves are ace! where it's Alliance and Horde kicking the hell out of each other, because that's good times," grins Metzen.
That's what it's all about really, isn't it? That and killing monsters, grinding your way through levels, ignoring the pleas of your wife, growing distant from real life, losing your job and eventually being found dead, naked and alone.
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My First Kiss was with a French exchange student. I wore braces. He had tousled hair. Neither of us understood each other. We kissed round the back of the school swimming pool. It was magical, if a bit wet. I lost an earring. After he went home, we never spoke again, but I didn't care because every moment was etched on my brain. And, apparently, still is.
My first experiences with the original World Of Warcraft are indelibly marked on my brain, like that first kiss. When I first fell in love back then, I was a Night Elf rogue. Instead of tousled hair there was the stunning elven architecture - trees spiralling into the sky, higher than I could crane my mouse. Everywhere there was colour, everywhere there was dancing.
By the time I reached level 601 was rolling with the Horde as a less-than-lithe tauren druid. But no matter how many instances I tried, no matter how many small comers of the world I uncovered, 1 could never get back that initial feeling of stepping into WOW for the first time - that first kiss that takes you into a whole new world of fumbles, gropes and late night condom-runs. Or, alternatively, epic battles, beautiful new lands and life-sucking addiction.
Or at least that was the case until I, along with half the civilised world, installed WOW's expansion pack. The Burning Crusade. Joy of joys, it felt new again! New things to see, to talk to, to kill, to loot, to pick, to eat! The colours were back, and oh how I danced - in bear-form. And that's what makes The Burning Crusade such a joy for the great and the grizzled, like me. The six-area strong new continent of the Outlands is a fantastic addition to the WOW experience. So let's start there, on the other side of the Dark Portal.
The continent of Outlands is where the big kids go to play, beyond the Dark Portal which is situated in the Blasted Lands. Primarily, it extends the game world for the high-leveller (levels 58 and above) who've previously been kicking their heels in the dust, scraping together honour points or rep just so they could look spiffing as they go, well, absolutely nowhere really. If you're a WOW long-timer, you might have found that after a while - unless you were heavily into PvP - nothing too interesting was dropping for you. If it did, it was so close to what you already possessed that it was hardly worth the time it took to acquire it As for anything remotely exciting coming up on the auction house, forget it.
But in the Outlands, everything's new and suddenly you're swapping your weapons and armour every few drops. Your pockets are weighed down with gold and even the crap sells better than it used to in Azeroth. Guild chat is full of people showing off their new booty, swapping new recipes and exchanging hints and tips on dealing with the weird and wild Outlands beasties. It's a huge, and much needed adrenalin shot for anyone that's hung in there long enough.
Once you get past the rather dreary, war-torn welcome mat of Hellfire Peninsula (which is arguably more breathtaking if you look up rather than down), the scenery in this six-area continent is stunning. From the giant glowing mushroom-themed area of Zangarmarsh (everyone's favourite) to the cool calm of the Terokkar Forest and the lush green hills of Nagrand, there are bucketloads of goodies for the eyes. WOW has always been a highly visual game, with a depth of style and character that will undoubtedly stand it's all so lovely and new that it k contributes to one of the few flaws of the expansion - namely that it makes some of the high-level areas and instances that reside in the main continents of Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms look rather redundant.
The Old World
Certainly Blizzard have predicted this surge over to the Outlands and they've put certain measures in place to keep you going back to the mainland, just so you don't forget it's there. For starters, there are no auction houses in the Outlands. It sounds outrageous at first. But then you realise that it keeps all the new gear from the Outlands filtering through the rest of the game (even for people without the expansion). You also realise that if this feature wasn't there, the poor old continents probably wouldn't even get so much as a postcard from you.
But it's not like you have to keep popping in and out of Dark Portal to get home. Shattrath, the main shared city of the continent is also a city of portals. So you can very easily get back to any other main city in the game. However, the portals are one way. Ha ha! So it's back to the jolly green wibbling giant in the Blasted Lands or you'll be stuck there until your hearthstone warms up.
Of course, there are now scaleable dungeons in Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms and new instances such as the Caverns of Time (68+) to go back for. But who really wants to trundle around in Stratholme for the umpteenth time when there's a brand new continent all shiny and new waiting to be discovered?
A fair amount has been written about the Blood Elves (Horde) and the Draenei (Alliance), the two new races in The Burning Crusade. But what's surprising is how well they fit into the overall live game.
Each race seems to complete the feel of the Alliance and Horde line-ups. The Blood Elves fulfil the Horde's need for something a bit pretty to look at (and yes, the Blood Elf starting area is full of salivating ex-Alliancers); and the Draenei lend a bit of sci-fi shenanigans to the Alliance's rather pedestrian line-up. On top of that, the Blood Elves bring the class of Paladin to the Horde, while the Draenei come with a bit of hot Shaman action.
All the races in the game have had a few twiddles and tweaks, much of which was put in place before Burning Crusade went fully live. Armour and weapons specifically targeted at certain races are also more prevalent. Several wish-list items have been satisfied, including a personal one of mine that means druids can now get feral-specific gear, which enhances their power in cat, dire-bear or Moonkin form.
Every professional also gets its own upgrades. Herbalists have new and exotic plants to pick, while tailors can use the ethereal-sounding netherweave cloth to make new garments and slotted bags that exceed the once decadent-sounding level of 16. There are also new ores for miners, who can now also dig up gems to facilitate the game's new gem-crafting skill. Again, all these elements are drip-fed into all the other levels in the game.
Even if you haven't purchased Burning Crusade yet, you're going to see a hundred little hints about what you're missing out on. Put simply, Burning Crusade is an astounding piece of work that has a huge impact for all players of the game. Blizzard have learned a lot since the game was first released and it's all paid off. It's simply a slicker, more polished offering than the original game, and that in itself seems so many months and numerous patches ago, that it's hard to remember it at all.
There are, as you'd expect, a few small flaws and quest bugs that cause the occasional niggle, and at peak times there are short periods of lag in crowded areas. However, Blizzard have always been pretty militant about stamping those out so no alarm bells are ringing just yet.
With the new continent, races and additions to almost every aspect of the game coming in at a flat-rate price, it's surely going to be a rare thing to find a WOW player without The Burning Crusade. In fact, 'must-buy' doesn't seem strong enough. There should probably be some kind of law forcing every player to have it. For their own good, of course.
The Burning Crusade's only real flaw is that it so outshines what has gone before. What was once beautiful only seems tarnished by the presence of a more sublime, more elegant beauty. Maybe the old country will stop looking like such a ghost town once the novelty wears off. But it won't be for a while, because this is one burning feeling that you'll be happy to hang on to.