One day someone should write a list of those games with the remarkable ability to consume time; the Langoliers of the present, where a "quick thirty minutes" is somehow five and a half hours. And they should put World of Warcraft right at the top. With access to the beta test that's currently in progress, we've had the opportunity to take a look around to give you our first impressions.
"That quest has gone green, we'd better get it done."
It's astonishing, how deeply embedded the language and behaviour of the Worlds of Warcraft has become in so many lives. Clearly there are those for whom it has become a career, a marriage, or the stark reason for the loss of either, with level 60 guild members playing a minimum of 30 hours a week to stand any chance of maintaining position in their raids. But there are many more who have dabbled, taken their Tauren druid to level 35, then played around a bit with a Dwarven rogue, before accidentally taking him to level 46 en route to securing a mount. There's a vocabulary of World of Warcraft - the semiotic resonance and instant glee of seeing a yellow question mark - understood by all who've been pulled in.
The Burning Crusade, should you be wondering, is that of Sargeras, the Destroyer of Worlds. His plan to kill everything in the universe - which seems a little much - has reached Azeroth's planal borders, and everyone's efforts would appear to be needed to prevent this.
The two new races are the Blood Elves, and the Dranei, each existing in a pleasing contradiction. The Dranei are a group of an alien race called the Eredar, who fled when Sargeras attempted to subvert the magical species to his own evil ends. After an attempt to live on a planet with some peaceful Orcs, the pursuing forces of Sargeras's Burning Legion corrupted the Orcs, leading to a war from which the Dranei had to run. Crashing on Azeroth (thanks to those naughty Blood Elves), the remnants of the species are a withered and broken form of their previous selves, but still determined to fight for the forces of Light. Early Dranei quests have you dashing about trying to fix the mess they're inadvertently making, uncorrupting creatures, and generally being kindly. Which of course requires that you kill ten of this, and eight of that, but the quest instructions justify it away.
The Blood Elves, familiar from Warcraft III, play the other twist. These are angry elves, hellbent on recovering their land, Quel'Thalas, lost to the Scourge. Their magic addiction has resulted in their rather ingeniously augmenting the powers of the Alliance to Hordeish advantage. By their cruel captivation of a Naaru - a giant alien god-like creature of the sort that aided the Dranei in their escape - they are able to use some Alliance abilities unavailable to the rest of the Horde races.
Each new starting area is a pleasantly vivid and original presentation. The Dranei live in washed out purples and blues, with pink/purple glowing crystals subverting what was clearly once luscious green. Their beautiful city is crazed pinks and purples, a crystalline dedication to their alien home. The Blood Elves, meanwhile, begin in WoW at its most colourful, lovely green woods and beautiful buildings, everywhere enlivened with magic, whether it's buoyant floating objects or the Fantasia-like brooms that busily sweep floors of their own accord... Apart from the black tear down through the centre of their lands, called the Scar. It's a clever motif, representing the former source of their magic, now the bane of their existence, that continues down through the zones as you progress. It's stalked by the undead, and makes for a dangerous crossing at any point.
Quest structures seem very familiar so far. The usual abundance of shopping list quests appear, each of course designed to advance you through the new territories, gently funnelling you from one home-base to the next. Killing ten of a creature, collecting eight drops (with beasts still magically managing to die without their own legs or ears), or finding six objects at the bottom of a lake, all nudge you along, and the hypnotic progression kicks in. By the time my Blood Elf reached the Ghostlands - spooky washed-out blue woods with the continuation of the Scar, I was fully in the swing of things and missing bedtimes.
There's a new profession on offer: jewel crafting. While perhaps not the most exciting pursuit at first glance, it's going to offer lots of potential. Items will now come with jewel slots, into which crafted jewels can be inserted to receive a specific boost. Clearly this will be an excellent money-making opportunity for those with the skill, and it will make item augmentation that more interesting.
With no new classes on offer, instead the real purpose of the new races appears to be to expand the opening opportunities for new players (along with new race-specific abilities like the Blood Elves' Mana Tap or the Dranei's healing Gift of Naaru), and in turn, expanding the mythology of the story, all pointing toward the level 60+ area, the Outland.