“You are NOT prepared,” says Illidan, a bat-winged demon lord who soars through the opening cinematic for The Burning Crusade, the first major expansion to Blizzard’s massively-multiplayer blockbuster, World of WarCraft. His gravelly voice is as indignant as it is menacing, as if players have shown up for honors English class at the Welton Academy without doing any of the assigned reading.
Illidan must not be talking to current players of World of WarCraft, who couldn’t possibly have been more prepared for the overdue expansion pack. As early as last spring, experienced players began to prepare for The Burning Crusade by hoarding in-game currency and tinkering with character specifications. Each new piece of speculation about the changes which would be wrought by the expansion set off shockwaves on discussion boards and in the game’s chat channels.
On the other hand, Illidan had me dead to rights. I wasn’t prepared. After spending an embarrassingly large portion of 2005 in the game’s world of Azeroth, my playing time tapered off last year. Last September, I finally took a step which is incomprehensible to the game’s most ardent devotees: I cancelled my World of WarCraft subscription. The release of The Burning Crusade gave me an excuse to revisit that decision. For me, the question was not whether World of WarCraft is still the gold standard of the massively-multiplayer genre (it is), or even whether The Burning Crusade improves the game (it does). What I wanted to know was whether The Burning Crusade could re-invoke the gee-whiz factor I experienced when I first saw Azeroth’s vast playing field splayed out before my starry newbie eyes.
Those may be high expectations, but not unfair ones. With World of WarCraft generating an estimated $40 million in monthly revenue—an amount which a modestly successful game title might earn over its entire commercial lifespan—Blizzard has virtually abandoned its other franchises to retool itself into a WarCraft factory. That’s bad news for those waiting forlornly for the announcement of StarCraft 2, but it ought to be good news for the more than seven million players (roughly the combined populations of Kansas and Colorado) who fork over about $15 each month to join their online buddies in World of WarCraft‘s Tolkienesque adventures.
Blizzard obviously hopes that The Burning Crusade will entice other former subscribers to return to the fold. To this end, they took some steps which were presumably meant to level the playing field between the casual players—those who pay the subscription fee for only a few hours in Azeroth each month—and the diehards who, for the same monthly rate, suckle Blizzard’s bandwidth and computing time for 40 to 80 hours per week. The diehards may drive the game’s buzz, but the casual players are far more profitable.
The problem, as I discovered when I began to reduce my playing time, is that casual players are inevitably second-class citizens in World of WarCraft. The always-on worlds of massively multiplayer games thrive on the social networks formed between players, and those networks create a dimension that is largely out of a game publisher’s control. Someone who plays on Sunday afternoons and the odd weeknight won’t have the same level of access to World of WarCraft‘s content as a player who spends every minute of their discretionary time logged into the game world, forging alliances with other highly experienced players.
Those alliances tend to form large confederations, known as guilds. After completing the game’s story content, these guilds often spend hundreds of hours “farming” difficult dungeons in groups of 20 or more. The object is to get the bad guys to drop loot and rare items when they die, with the best spoils going to players who have put in the most “farming” time for the guild.
Perhaps understandably, some players who had each spent months improving a single character in this manner grumbled when The Burning Crusade allowed returning dilettantes to substantially close the equipment gap with just a few hours of intense play. The grumbling was short-lived. Within days of The Burning Crusade‘s release, thousands of players had already hit the new level cap (raised from 60 to 70), forsaking niceties like sleep and hygiene in the process. By the time you read this review, tens of thousands more will have exhausted The Burning Crusade‘s content and resumed the repetitive “farming” process. It seems reasonable to assume that these enormous investments of players’ time will be depreciated again when the next World of WarCraft expansion is released, but that doesn’t seem to dissuade the diehards from doggedly pursuing the hottest imaginary property.
Even with The Burning Crusade, then, World of WarCraft remains two games played by two different gamer populations. The first game, where you create a character from one of eight races and lead them through a complex series of quest-based storylines, is still excellent. The other game, which is what’s left when you’ve had your fill of the first game, is a never-ending shopping derby, only with monsters. That’s not so excellent.
Until you reach that point, though, The Burning Crusade’s content delivers. A new, disorienting game zone called Outland is available to players at Level 58 and above. Outland offers players who reach Level 70 the opportunity to pilot their own flying mounts through a surrealistic skyscape of floating land masses. Getting airborne is a good idea, since 200-foot tall “Voltron” look-alikes, called Fel Reavers, stomp violently across the terrain, scattering player characters before them like pebbles.
New content is not reserved for high level characters. If you’re a new player or a returning player looking for a clean slate, there are two new races to choose from, each with its own collection of unique quest narratives that helps tie it into the established World of WarCraft storylines.
The Elf homeland was all but destroyed by the evil Scourge five years ago, a story first told in 2002’s WarCraft III: Reign of Chaos. The survivors, who call themselves Blood Elves, have reoccupied what’s left of their capital city. A permanent black trench scars the land where the Scourge army marched up to the main gate, smashed its way in and destroyed the Sunwell, the elves’ ancient source of magical power. The traumatized blood elves used to belong to the Alliance, but they feel abandoned by their former allies and have defected to the Horde.
Inside the rebuilt walls, the newly militant elves glower at visitors under the protection of Arcane Guardians, hulking golems who bear a passing resemblance to Cylon centurions on the current edition of Battlestar Galactica. The leaders of Blood Elf society have fixated on the restoration of the Sunwell as the answer to all their problems. “Those who would speak out against magic are enemies of progress,” one Blood Elf tells a small crowd of citizens in the partially-restored city.
The alien Draenai, the new Alliance race, might be in even worse straits; their spaceship crashed near Night Elf country, and they’re just trying to get their wits about them. If you went solely by their accents, you might guess that the Draenai spaceship had taken off from Budapest or perhaps Kiev. Sooner or later, though, you’d notice that they’re robin’s egg blue, with tails and enormous, zucchini-shaped lobes of flesh hanging from their heads.
These ungainly appendages do not prevent Draenai from taking up arms as shamans, a famously formidable class previously only available to Horde characters. Between Draenai shamans and Blood Elf paladins, all character classes are now available to both WarCraft factions.
Gamers who enjoy sword and sorcery themes and have yet to experience a persistent environment would do well to heed my original recommendation of World of Warcraft. The Burning Crusade is a worthy expansion that makes this landmark game better.
For those who feel that they’ve already extracted their share of fun from the original game, the value proposition of The Burning Crusade is somewhat less convincing. The new content is as good or better than the old, but restoring the newness of the World of WarCraft playing experience may be beyond the ability of any expansion pack. Even in a place as wondrous as Azeroth, you can’t go home again.