[[The WoW Factor]]
Blizzard's first expansion to its ridiculously popular MMORPG offers just what you'd expect: more of the same. But, why complain about a good thing? WoW has over 8 million subscribers; clearly they must be doing something right. If you cannot get your head round that figure just contemplate the fact that around USD 100 million enter Blizzard's bank account on a monthly basis.
Though it's been a long two years in the making (with many a subscriber flailing around for a purpose in the endgame), WoW fans will find that Burning Crusade is well worth the wait. With a slew of new content, new areas, new races, and overhauls to old game mechanics, the expansion plays like an entirely new game-one that you're already good at, assuming you're level 60 when you start off.
Technically speaking, there's not much new going on with this expansion. Blizzard has stuck to its old graphics engine to pare down loading times and maximize subscribers in areas without high speed internet. Because of the massive subscriber base, there are always going to be server crashes, weekly server maintenance, and queues-so don't expect a revolution in the MMO experience from Burning Crusade. We all get stuck staring at loading screens sometimes. Supposedly, Burning Crusade will work on a 56k connection, but Blizzard specifically required a broadband connection for the expansion. Technical support will still be offered to dial-up subscribers, but not for issues regarding patches. Standard DirectX sound cards, 32MB 3D graphics processor, and at least 512MB of RAM are also required, though 1GB is preferred.
That said, the appeal of Burning Crusade to hardcore and casual gamer alike is the new design-related content. Blizzard has gone all out on art direction (to make up for the lack of a graphics engine overhaul), and taken extra care to introduce new gameplay features with respect to the balance of the MMO environment. The in-game story-and we'd be remiss to ignore how much effort Blizzard put into coming up with it-goes like this: Seven years after the defeat of the Burning Legion at Mount Hyjal, forces of the Horde and Alliance have stumbled upon the Dark Portal that leads to the Outland. Beyond the terrible gate lies a land of new adventures, new friends and foes, and the remnants of the Burning Legion eager to renew their crusade (Get it? "Burning Crusade"). Meanwhile, the Draenai crash land their spaceship on Azeroth and take up with the Alliance while the Blood Elves got sick of being High Elves, renamed themselves and joined up with the Horde. This may not be the plot twist of the century, but it does lend itself to the task of explaining Burning Crusade's place in WoW's mythos.
The Burning Crusade brings a lot to WoW but limits its gifts to gameplay. We have already mentioned that there have been no improvements to the graphics engine powering the expansion; we have to add that many fans have complained, mentioning EVE Online and its upcoming free expansion which promises to include a full graphics overhaul. What we have to understand however, are the sheer logistics of having 8 million subscribers from so many different nations. Blizzard cannot just release a high-end game as it is likely to alienate more than half of its subscribers who cannot afford, or do not have access to the latest hardware. In the same way, Blizzard has confronted the connectivity issues that arise. Not all subscribers have access to broadband but Blizzard were faced with a Catch 22 situation, if you label your online mode as 56K compatible you immediately lose some respect points but if you don't, you scare away a great number of potential subscribers. Blizzard's solution was as ingenious as it was shady. Announce a 56k compatible game, with full technical support, but in the minimum requirements state that a broadband connection is required; done and dusted.
So marketing and logistics aside, how could someone offer an honest assessment of what The Burning Crusade delivers? It is fairly common practice to simply quote sales figures in order to demonstrate a game's competence and if any game deserves such treatment its WoW. There is however, a more powerful way of judging a game and it's a very private process. Start playing and see how long it takes before you really have to go to the bathroom. Simply put, WoW must be responsible for the biggest hidden Distended Bladder epidemic in the history of mankind.
Blizzard is a meticulous developer, a company which creates well thought out games and in this light it is clear to see how The Burning Crusade works. Instead of relying on new technology, the developer turned to artistic direction and detailed environments as well as a shedload of new gameplay features. This expansion is not meant to WoW players by offering a unique visual treat but instead rewards the player by offering features which He has requested.
Some content of Burning Crusade can be accessed by players without the benefit of a level 60 character, but not much. The two new races of Azeroth-Blood Elves and Draenai-are playable for all, and now anyone can cash in on paladin and shaman classes regardless of faction. The jewelcrafting skill and all tradable items to be had in Outland can be accessed even by players without the expansion. For the most part, a new player starting out his or her WoW experience won't notice the gap between old and new. The training grounds for the Blood Elves and the Draenai look a lot better than the other races' stomping grounds, but only a seasoned WoW gamer would notice how much easier it is to get from level 1 to level 20 than in days of yore.
Experienced players will note the new and the changed right away. For starters, the level cap now extends to 70; with the new environments providing all sorts of endgame challenges once you get there. The maximum skill level has gone up to 375. And with the Blood Elves and the Draenai added to Azeroth's demographic, Horde gamers can finally get their hands on paladins while Alliance gamers can try out shamans. Starting out a new character with either race hardly feels like a grind for the first twenty levels or so and the isolated starting areas are lush with artistic detail. But beyond the Dark Portal in Outland is where most of the new content lies, and you'll have to be level 60 to enjoy it.
Once in Outland, the real game begins. All the level 60 epic gear that most gamers have slaved away at getting becomes useless by the common item drops. Seven new areas, rendered in painstaking artistic detail, offer lush landscapes and nifty little side areas that beg to be explored. New dungeons like the Caverns of Time and the Hellfire Citadel are ready to be explored and conquered for the rewards of more rare Outland gear which will come in handy as players grind their way up to level 70. Ultimately, the trip from 60 to 70 will take about as long as it used to take to get from 1 to 60. But, take heart: now that it's a breeze to get to level 20, a fresh character will be up to level 70 in about a month (assuming you only play 4 hours a day and mostly know what you're doing).
The real attraction for the hardcore gamer is the endgame. Now that the level cap is up to 70, most of the old WoW endgame content is useless (tedious, actually). And though no major changes were made to monster A.I. (supposedly lower-level beasts actually use some combat tactics as opposed to just standing there and taking it), bosses of dungeons are designed with insane tactics-oriented A.I. and won't go down by simple hack-n-slash. The new Heroic mode (available at level 70), also adds a new degree of pain to PvE: this makes the ordinary dungeons extraordinarily difficult, reminiscent of those 5 hour long raids that you'd need an entire guild just to get to the boss. The pays offs for these endeavors are big though; the rarest items are only dropped when completing a dungeon on Heroic.
If you're in WoW for the PvP aspect, Burning Crusade is a partial answer to your prayers. Outland offers the new Arena system to level 70 characters, new combat grounds, and finally the ability to see stealth players in battle. In the endgame Arena system, players can enter for team matches of 2v2, 3v3, and 5v5, making the experience similar to a guild (but without having to stay loyal to one). During Arena combat, a shadow sight spell become available after a set amount of time, allowing all players to see stealth characters. This comes at a cost of HP, though, so don't rely on it too heavily. Out in the seven new zones, PvP takes place in contested areas where the point of combat is to control points on the map. This becomes more difficult at the higher levels, with level 70 characters literally falling out of the sky, but the rewards of PvP in Burning Crusade are well worth the risks.
Ah, yes-about those flying mounts: you can only get them at level 70, only use them in Outland, and you'll need a lot of gold just to get your hands on one (never mind training it). But, boy is it ever worth the work; covering ground in Outland is hard to do on foot. Moreover, one of the best new dungeons can only accessed by flight, primarily in Shadowmoon Valley and Netherstorm, and unless you've got a level 68 druid on-hand, you'd better shell out for a gryphon or a windrider. Because of the size of Outland and because Blizzard spent so much effort on the little quirks and hidden treasures of the geography, the best of Burning Crusade's endgame hinges on owning a flying mount. The differences between the epic and normal versions of gryphon and windrider is speed-related for the moment (While the normal flying mount is only a 60% speed increase (the same as a level 40 mount, the fact that you can avoid terrain and npcs means you get a whopping 280% flight speed increase), but once at level 70, epic flying mounts are a status symbol. Once you've gotten a flying mount, try out the new gaming experience of dropping into an area, grabbing some loot, and then taking to the sky again without even having to fight. It gets a bit boring after a while, but at first it's a real rush. Quit dreaming about aerial combat, though-players cannot engage in fighting while on a flying mount, though they can jump down into a battle at any time provided they don't die on impact. Flying mounts are not without their dangers, though. It is currently possible to die high up in the air, or on an island that can only be accessed via a flying mount, and be forced to resurrect at a spirit healer. The Blizzard Community Team has said on their forums (forums.worldofwarcraft.com) that they're working on this for a future patch. The only other disappointment to flying mounts is being unable to use them in Azeroth, though it's understandable as Azeroth was never designed for players to be able to access all of its terrain. Using flying mounts in the old world would require a revamp of much of the terrain, but perhaps it's something we'll see in the future.
All of this rich new content may seem unbalancing to the environment of WoW-but Blizzard has had two years to watch other MMOs try and fail at adding new content to precarious systems and it seems they've learned a thing or two. From Guild Wars, they've taken the idea of a smaller instance cap. Dungeons now offer identical experiences to players from parties of 5 to raids of 25. Like Dungeons and Dragons Online, the new instances have more exit points and can usually be completed in a couple of hours instead of half a day. And, in the tradition of Diablo II, the new jewelcrafting skill is entirely dependent on armor and items that contain slots for the crafted jewels, allowing experienced tradesmen to trick out their gear with as many attribute-granting gems as they can fit into an item.
Some unforeseen problems have come up with these mechanics, in conjunction with old WoW content. First, the new instancing pigeonholes gamers into a specific role. If you're a warrior, you'll be a tank and that's that. Second, paladins can now tank because of changes to mana distribution. So, really, why would you need a warrior in your party? Just get a few paladins and plough throw. Third, with jewelcrafting in the mix and tweaks to HP, there's no reason to be an engineer. All the little tricks of the trade (like bombs) aren't nearly as harmful as they used to be-and jewelcrafting is more lucrative for players looking to take advantage of the in-game economy. And finally, the distribution of shaman and paladin to both factions takes away the idea that the Horde and Alliance were fundamentally different. Now, they're practically the same-right down to the Horde being able to be "pretty" using the Blood Elves.
No doubt the more serious problems will be fixed in forthcoming patches; Blizzard has never failed to deliver when it comes to patching. And as we said before, that weekly server maintenance probably isn't going anywhere anytime soon. New dungeons will also become available in future patches, and players who chafe against the level 70 cap will probably get lots of new endgame content (a few dungeons in Burning Crusade aren't yet available, but they sure do look tempting to someone who's completed all other dungeons on Heroic). It's pretty much the same old drill, only better because it feels so new all over again.
+Gorgeous new content
+Nice new music
+Blood Elves and Draenai
+Easier to get from level 1 to level 20
+Instancing makes partying easier
-Got to be level 60 to see most of the new content
-No reason to be an engineer when you can be a jewelcrafter
-Not all areas are accessible without flight
-Warriors are becoming obsolete
-Nothing really revolutionary for the most revolutionary MMORPG of all time
-Expansion is whopping USD 40
-Instancing makes partying more selective
Take it or leave it:
=New Arena system
=New PvP combat conventions
=Paladins and shamans for all
Bottom line: If you loved WoW, Burning Crusade is all you could ever dream of in an MMORPG and you should shell out USD 40 for it. If you don't love WoW, then nothing in the expansion will change that and you should save that cash for Halo 3.