Reviewed: February 4, 2007
Released: January 16, 2007
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About two years have passed since the vibrant worlds imagined in Blizzard's Warcraft RTS games were brought to life in the full-fledged MMORPG, World of Warcraft. Since then, WoW has broken all manner of sales and subscription records, and developed a slavishly loyal fan base of over eight million players worldwide. Regular content patches and tweaks, combined with untold scores of gameplay improvements over previous MMORPGs such as EverQuest, have kept WoW at the forefront of the online gaming world for casual players and hardcore fans alike.
Now, at long last, the first truly massive content update to World of Warcraft is here in the form of a $39.99 expansion set, World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade. Burning Crusade is one of the largest expansion sets for an MMO in gaming history: in CD-ROM form, the set takes up four discs, the same amount of space required for the original game itself. Burning Crusade adds a total of eleven new zones, including four for lower-level players and seven to accommodate the newly increased maximum level cap for high-level player characters, up to 70 (from a previous maximum of 60).
There are two new playable races, one for each faction: the Horde have allied with the powerful, magic-addicted Blood Elves, while the Alliance have befriended the honorable, Light-aligned Draenei, a race of refugees from another world. Each race has a full-featured capital city complete with Auction Houses and class trainers, as well as a starting zone for new players and a level 10-20 zone to get them prepared for adventuring in the worlds at large.
I say "worlds" because the other seven zones are set in the tattered remnants of Draenor, another world apart from Azeroth entirely. Draenor was the home planet of the Orcs, as well as a long-time refuge for the Draenei, many of whom also consider it a home of sorts. All that's left of Draenor now is a collection of ragged land masses jutting into the void of space, and it is generally referred to as Outland, a new continent in its own right rather than a full planet anymore. As when the Orcs first arrived on Azeroth, players must use the infamous Dark Portal to venture forth from Azeroth into Outland, where innumerable quests, new creatures of every type and several large dungeons wait to challenge them on their road to level 70.
In addition, Burning Crusade adds a new profession, Jewelcrafting (which is chiefly concerned with the creation of rings, necklaces and trinkets), as well as dozens of new recipes for each pre-existing trade profession, several factions to gain reputation with, new world and battleground PvP options, an Arena system for focused, highly competitive team PvP action, new spells and abilities for every class and a readjusted itemization scale meant to close the widening gap between the power levels of people who participate in raid (10+ person) dungeons regularly, and those who do not have the time to do so.
We've been lucky enough to get our mitts on a copy of this massive update for one of the world's best-loved video games, and these are our preliminary findings.
As Julie Andrews once sang, the beginning is a very good place to start, and what could be newer than the new playable races of The Burning Crusade? There are two: the Blood Elves for the Horde, and the Draenei for the Alliance. Blizzard shocked their huge fan base some time back when they announced the that through the two new races, the Horde would have access to playing paladins, and the Alliance would have access to playing shamans, two classes that were previously exclusive to their respective factions. Reactions to this announcement were mixed. Many felt that these two classes were a major factor in what made the Horde and the Alliance unique, and Horde paladins and Alliance shamans merely meant homogenization of the two factions.
The question of Warcraft lore came up as well, but, truth be told, Blizzard has never been reluctant to bend the world of Azeroth to fit new horizons within the game. Others, especially those who feel a certain amount of affection for one side over the other, were glad to hear that they could now try out every playable class in the game without having to switch to their less preferred side. The question of balance and equality when it comes to the two factions in terms of gameplay (traditionally, paladins are considered good at PvE, while shamans seem to excel at PvP) was one that had come up numerous times. It is the apparent hope of Blizzard that although some of the uniqueness of the two factions has been done away with, the overall gameplay experience will become more balanced as a result.
The care that Blizzard has taken in dealing with this cross-faction mix up is apparent in every detail of the two "reverse" classes. Draenei shamans have their own totem quests, of course, and more importantly obtain totems that look significantly different from those of Horde shamans, making an easier time of differentiating friend from foe in the heat of combat. Blood Elf paladins call themselves Blood Knights (rather than just saying "we're paladins!") and differentiate themselves from Alliance paladins in their attitudes and different organizational structure.
It is interesting to note that a Blood Elf paladin will rarely if ever be called a paladin by other Blood Elves--they are always referred to as blood knights. In the same vein, hunters who visit Blood Elf zones can expect to be referred to as "rangers," since the Blood Elf tradition is to call them as such. This careful attention to detail should soften the blow for those who find the idea of cross-faction paladins and shamans hard to swallow.
As for new starting and 10-20 zones, both the Draenei and the Blood Elves have been given unique and interesting areas to grind in. The Blood Elves start in Eversong Woods, an area once vibrant and full of life, but now mostly ravaged by the Scourge, as evidenced by the barren strip of land running right through the middle of the woods, referred to as The Dead Scar. The Blood Elves' source of power, the Sunwell, was destroyed in the attack, leaving the elegant race craving magic like junkies needing a fix. Now, nearly decimated as a people, the survivors have joined forces with the Horde to reclaim their kingdom, and find other means of controlling their magic addictions.
The Draenei, meanwhile, are the last untainted remnants of the Eredar race, who fled their home planet generations beforehand with the demonic Burning Legion in hot pursuit, eventually settling upon Draenor. Recently, the Draenei have again found themselves on the run, this time from the Legion's presence in Outland. Their dimension-crossing escape vessel, the massive ship Exodar, was brought to Azeroth by the Naaru, beings who are the embodiment of the powers of Light, where it crash-landed off the western coast of Kalimdor on a remote island. With the Exodar as their capital city, the Draenei befriended the Alliance, seeing them as followers of the Naaru's ways and kindred spirits in their endless quest to wipe out the Burning Legion once and for all.
From a gameplay perspective, the new areas are well-laid out on both sides, and the graduation of enemies from weaker to stronger is thoughtfully handled, as opposed to some of the old zones in the game, where rounding a corner might put you face to face with an enemy four levels above what you were just fighting. One of the first quests for either race allows the new character to immediately acquire an extra four-slot bag, which is handy since most new players run out of bag space before they know enough about working the Auction Houses to afford to buy more bags.
On our higher level characters, we noticed many level 12-20 Blood Elves hanging around Undercity and the Barrens, complaining about how crappy their new zones are, which is baffling since there are really no problems with Eversong Woods or the Ghostlands, and most players have been through the Barrens grind more times than they can count. The Ghostlands, while not as vastly laid out and varied as the Barrens, is still a good area to level up in. As for the Draenei... well, they don't seem to be taking off at all. A recent census had only 9% of the Alliance population playing one, while the Horde population stood at 20% Blood Elf, an ideal proportion for a five-race faction.
This is even weirder considering that Draenei get some of the more interesting quests available to low-level players. For instance, as low as level seven, the Draenei can take a quest that allows them to ride an epic elekk mount for a while. Never mind that elekks look like potatoes with tusks--a taste of rewards to come is a great way to whet a player's appetite for more. On the other hand, the Blood Elves don't get to ride Hawkstriders as far as we could tell. Unfair? Of course! Who wouldn't want the chance to gallivant about on a Technicolor chocobo thirty levels before he's supposed to? And yet, despite this and a few other very entertaining and original quests, the Draenei remain the unloved stepchild race of the Alliance, for the time being.
The racials that the blood elves and Draenei get are pretty fair and equal, though once again the Alliance race seems more suited to PvE, while the Horde get PvP abilities. The Blood Elves have a pair of devastating abilities: Mana Tap, which allows the Blood Elf to drain mana from their opponent (from up to 30 yards away!), and Arcane Torrent, which releases up to three Mana Tap charges, silencing all enemies within eight yards for two seconds, as well as granting the user about 10% of their total base mana pool for each charge released (or a small amount of energy, if you happen to play a Blood Elf rogue).
These abilities are practically made for PvP battlegrounds, for although they definitely have their uses in PvE, the fact that Arcane Torrent's silence is an area effect makes it haphazard for grouping. Blood Elves also have increased enchanting skills (which starts every blood elf who chooses the profession of enchanting at a skill level of 10), plus five points of resistance to all schools of magic.
The Draenei's power abilities are twofold. The first, Gift of the Naaru, is a free heal over time with a casting time of 1.5 seconds. Before gear begins to add HP to a Draenei character, the ability heals all or nearly all of her HP over the course of 15 seconds, and though this percentage quickly drops to around half with decent gear equipped, it continues to scale with level all the way to 70 and makes a huge difference in a desperate fight. The only reason Gift of the Naaru isn't killer as a PvP ability is the casting time aspect.
The other strong ability the Draenei come equipped with is Heroic Presence, a static ability that grants the Draenei character and all party members within 30 yards (including pets) +1% chance to hit. The combination of a self heal and an automatic group buff make Draenei a natural choice for grouping with other players for elite quests and dungeon crawls--in other words, for PvE. Draenei also have +5 to their Jewelcrafting skill and +10 shadow resistance.
At the other end of the spectrum of new content that Burning Crusade has to offer are the seven continents of Outland, and all their mysteries and challenges. Speaking as old hands who've been playing WoW for a couple of years now, Outland is where the real action is. Designed for level 58 or higher characters, Outland's massive zones are tailored to the 60 to 70 grind, and are replete with new factions to gain reputation with. There is also a new battleground there, Eye of the Storm, for high-level players to participate in.
Outland is where the fine-tuning that delayed Burning Crusade for so long really shines through. Nothing is done halfway here, and Blizzard is unafraid to change long-standing traditions and challenge assumptions for the sake of a better gameplay experience. A good example is the addition of Sanctuary zones, which appear on PvP servers in light blue text. Although no player can become unflagged by staying in a Sanctuary zone, players from opposing factions cannot attack each other in one, either.
One of the most talked-about additions is flying mounts, available in two flavors (slow and really, really fast) at level 70. Though the epic flying mounts cost around 6,000 gold to acquire, a much cheaper option (about 550 gold) is available to those with less money. There are numerous areas and in some cases, vast swaths of entire zones, that are unreachable except via flying mount. Sadly for those of us with exploratory tendencies, the mounts are only usable in Outland, but they really make a difference in a player character's mobility and (perhaps more importantly) money-making options at top level. Many of the areas only accessible by flight are home to vendors of rare and exotic items, special fishable items, and so on. For the slow flying mounts, at least, the cost of buying one is easily offset by the new avenues of income the mount offers to the savvy player.
Another, lower profile change to the game that is most evident in Outland is the improved itemization (relative power of items to each other) of quality equipment dropped there. Players will immediately notice that not only are the level 57 green Outland equipment drops better than most blue items previously in the game, but that quest rewards for fairly simple one- or two-step quests are quite usable and may actually be better than anything acquirable from the Auction House at the time--a radical departure from the old quests which almost always rewarded players with an item far inferior to equipment available through other avenues.
A number of other small details keep the action fast and fun in Outland. For once, Blizzard is unafraid to add lots and lots of flight points to everything, making travel less of a chore and quests in multiple locations all more likely to be finished rather than leveled out and abandoned. Hunters will find several new pet types in Outland, including a few with new combat abilities, and everyone will see enemies they haven't seen before (more on that in the Graphics section).
Significantly for dungeon-crawling raid fanatics, the raid group cap on the toughest dungeons has been reduced to 25, from a previous high of 40, while keeping the difficulty about the same. What would have previously been 20-man dungeons are now 10-man. This allows for the possibility of more players raiding than have done so previously, without making things any easier to defeat. In addition, most of the myriad new dungeons in the game have an option for Heroic difficulty, which makes them more challenging for players at level 70, with much tougher enemies and much better gear drops in exchange. Being able to come back to a dungeon eight levels after you've finished it, and make it even more challenging than before, adds a lot of extra playtime to the game. And all this stuff is really just scratching the surface of what Outland has to offer.
Overall, Blizzard has shown a very high amount of careful forethought in the development and implementation of the Burning Crusade expansion set, and it shows. Even when we thought we might have a complaint (example: there aren't any auction houses in Outland!), further consideration revealed that the reason for things being the way they were was deliberate and actually smart (reason: if there were auction houses in Outland, nobody would ever be in their faction's capital cities for longer than a few minutes, making them ghost towns ripe for bored raid guilds.). Also, there's so much of this good stuff to do and see that it's difficult to know where to begin and where to end when writing about it. There isn't even room to get into the intense experience of Arena combat in this review!
Perhaps most importantly, all of this new content is a lot of fun. It's fun to see, fun to hear, fun to play and experience, and not just because it's new. The Burning Crusade expansion combines top quality styling with top quality gameplay for an experience that should delight any fan of World of Warcraft, and will probably bring even more people into the fold than ever before.
What is there to say about the graphics of an expansion set like The Burning Crusade? It doesn't upgrade the overall quality of the graphics players will see on their computer screens. The requirements to run the expansion are nearly identical to those of the original game, after all. So judging the graphics of the game boils down to judging the stylistic choices Blizzard made when developing it.
As far as the new races go, both look very cool in our opinion. The Blood Elves have gone through numerous minute changes in their physical appearance, but have remained essentially the same from the start: really pretty, with glowing eyes. They have finer features than their Night Elf cousins, and are closer in height to the Human race, as well as possessing warm-toned hair and skin. During their emote animations they sometimes flex their unrealistically long ears in an endearing way. Again like the Night Elves, Blood Elves have a special jump animation, although they spin horizontally in midair rather than flipping vertically.
The Draenei show a high degree of what anthropologists call "sexual dimorphism," that is, difference in size and body structure between the males and females. Males are massive and bulky, while females are very petite in comparison, and curvy. Though the race's hooved feet and bulky frames might call to mind the Tauren race for some, the similarities end there. Draenei have blue to white tones of skin, glowing eyes and horns or plates protruding from their heads, as well as regular hair. They look imposing and friendly at the same time, which befits an Alliance race. Draenei females are very pretty in an odd, alien way, and the males look tough and honorable. The females also have a unique sitting posture, with their legs set to one side as with the centaurs from the animated film Fantasia.
There are, as we previously mentioned, hundreds of brand-new equipment items in the game, especially at high levels but also a scattering of them at the lower levels. These items often have new looks, and we're pleased to report that generally speaking, the new equipment models look pretty nice. Sadly, there are still some coif models in the headgear, as well as shoulder pads that look far too boring and elementary for our tastes, but by and large everything looks cool. Naginata-type pole arms, exotic filigreed shields and breastplates and neon-accented battle-axes are just a few of the neat-looking items players will have a chance to look at in The Burning Crusade. About our only complaint is that the Tier 5 hunter epic helm looks like an inflatable murloc head, but hey, nothing's perfect.
Enemy design has also gotten its first update for general audiences (that is to say, discounting new raid bosses, et cetera) since World of Warcraft was first released. New designs range from the subtle (another couple of skins for many of the already-existing enemy types, like big cats and helboars) to the wildly original (sporebats and ravagers), with plenty of gradation in between. Hindu-inspired demons with multiple arms stalk the wastes of Hellfire Peninsula, while peaceful goat-like creatures called talbuks graze in the fertile plains of Nagrand. So far, we haven't seen any new mob design that isn't perfect for the role it plays in the game world. Even small differences feel fresh, at least for the time being.
As for the eleven new zones themselves, they are all well thought out in terms of stylistic design. The first zone most players encounter in Outland, Hellfire Peninsula, is desolate and disconcerting, thanks in large part to a sky without enough atmosphere to hide the dark void of outer space, crisscrossed with lines of magical energy and the occasional floating rock. By the time players discover the first vaguely familiar-looking zone, the rolling plains of Nagrand, they look more like a welcome sanctuary than an also-ran copy of Arathi Highlands or Mulgore.
The four starting zones are all pretty interesting, though Eversong Woods looks like a cross between Elwynn Forest and Azshara rather than an entirely new zone in its own right, and neither of the two Draenei zones are totally original either. The red waters of Bloodmyst Isle are a nice touch, though. And the Exodar is definitely the more interesting of the two new capital cities in appearance. We were both very impressed when we entered the Exodar from its side entrance and were able to walk down a translucent spiral walkway while watching the city unfold beneath us through the floor. Silvermoon City is neat, but by necessity of lore it is not as original as the Draenei capital is.
Though the new sounds in The Burning Crusade are not a major focus of this review, they deserve to be mentioned because they are in large part excellent. The first time someone playing an Orc (and who has at least a vague grasp of game lore) visits Hellfire Peninsula and rides along the Path of Glory is a very emotional moment, in large part due to the magnificent original song that accompanies the Path. It sounds like the memory of a forgotten time, a time of darkness but also of pride and excitement.
It's a perfect fit for the road that the Orcish Horde used to first march forth from Hellfire Citadel and invade Azeroth under the influence of the Burning Legion. In fact, most of the music in Outland is original, making for a lot of new sonic content for high-level players. But perhaps the two most beautiful new themes in the expansion are those for the Blood Elf and Draenei starting zones. Azuremyst Isle's theme is carried by a lazy, mystical-sounding woodwind, while Eversong Woods is scored with a heartstring-tugging cello lead. Both are instantly memorable.
The new voices in the game basically boil down to the two new races, and in typical World of Warcraft fashion the actors and actresses who recorded them did a flawless job. There are only two problems we could find regarding the new voice acting. Firstly, none of the new city bosses have unique voices, as opposed to the original six who all said different things from regular NPCs of their races. Secondly, the female Draenei only have two /flirt emotes they can speak, as opposed to the five or six every other race/gender combination is given, including all Blood Elves and male Draenei. Why the shortchange? Regardless, the sounds of The Burning Crusade are top-notch and become a part of the gameplay experience naturally and beautifully.
Whether you've been a World of Warcraft junkie for some time and are looking to bring your level 60 up another ten levels to explore new lands and dungeons while getting your hands on some ridiculously powerful gear, or if you've only recently caught the WoW bug and want to see what all the hoopla is about, the Burning Crusade expansion has a lot to offer.
With two new playable races, hundreds (if not thousands) of new items, new recipes, a new profession, new areas to explore, new quests, a new battleground, new world PvP objectives, an entirely new avenue for PvP combat (arenas), and flying mounts, why, it's almost like Blizzard wants us to become hopelessly addicted to this game, all over again! And, let's face it: we probably all will. The Burning Crusade is likely to eat up the next several hundred hours of your gaming life. Don't forget to go outside once in a while and see the sun, okay?
Though lore fiends may be beating their heads against solid objects thinking about all the new directions The Burning Crusade takes the continuing saga of the World of Warcraft, they really should learn to relax and enjoy what Blizzard has set before them: perhaps the most comprehensive and detailed expansion set ever to be released for an MMORPG.
Blizzard has made a name for itself by insisting that the gameplay experience come first and foremost ahead of anything else, and that dedication is reflected in the highly balanced nature of the additions Burning Crusade makes to the basic gameplay of its parent game. Add to that underlying premise the novelty of two entirely new races, eleven new zones including a new high-level continent, too many new items to count, and all the rest, and you've got a winning combination of basic quality in overwhelming and varied amounts.
This review, though long, hardly does justice to it. The new sounds, many of the new graphics and all of the new content are as good as anyone could ask for. If you play WoW and are still on the fence about buying this expansion, then consider this your call to action: Get it. Now. You won't be disappointed. And face it: until you do, everyone who has it will just be rubbing it in your face anyway. It's that good.