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.
A tip of the cap
For those who have level-capped, and didn't have the time or nature to dedicate themselves to the world of raiding guilds, this is where Burning Crusade will really matter. The Outland, accessible through the Dark Portal you might remember from Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne, begins with an operatic roar in the Hellfire Peninsula. Emerging through the green swirl you're greeted by monolithic beasts like never before, engaged in huge battle. These are the forces of the Burning Legion, attempting to break through from this other-worldly region into Azeroth, locked in permanent NPC conflict. It's a set-piece rather than a piece of game, but you can wade in and offer your 1300 hit points.
The main new areas lie beyond, in regions like Zangarmarsh - an incredible land of building-sized toadstools and fungi, with a town, Telredor, built high in some of the caps. The surface is more water than land, small clusters of islands linked by wooden bridges, the streams stalked by the beautiful Fen Striders - fifteen-foot-high creatures that look half War of the Worlds aliens, and half jellyfish. South of here lies Nagrand, the prettiest area the game has ever offered, with incredible green rolling hills, inhabited by wonderful new giant beasts, and magical floating rocks in the sky from which waterfalls cascade. Back to the east is Terokkar Forest, a miserable, ghostly place of greys, but also home to the capital city, Shattrath, kept safe by its focal Temple of Light, and the naaru, A'dal, within.
Each region of the Outland contains a number of spirit towers - the multiplayer feature introduced to previous higher-level areas a couple of patches ago. These will encourage conflict between the Horde and Alliance forces, who'll find respective allied areas at either side of each map, from where control of each tower (and indeed graveyard) is to be contested. This looks like it could become incredibly cool once it's up and running properly, with the ability to create defences for held buildings, and the opportunities for mass tactical attacks.
Of course, Outland is also the place for achieving the new upper target, level 70. The whole area, while accessible from level 55 and upward, is pretty lethal for anyone below level 60. Essentially, it's more WoW. More gathering quests, many more dungeons, and many new raiding opportunities, as well as all-important new 60+ abilities and skills being added in, so characters will get all the more powerful. Anyone who is a regular WoW player is both not going to have had time to read this article, and has already pre-ordered the game. Anyone who stopped at level 60 might now have a reason to head back in, and dedicate a few dozen more hours to taking their character further forward.
Raids are being downsized, with the endgame focus shifting from 40 man encounters to 25 - slightly easing the organisational nightmares of the large raiding guilds. It will also be slightly easier for smaller groups to receive better loot, with 5 man dungeons receiving a 'hard mode' - rewarding brave adventurers with more powerful items. For those more interested in raising their PvP honour, new arenas are to be opened, where much smaller teams can battle it out, gangs of two, three or five, in some as-yet unseen sporting events. And the last thing to get excited about in this little round-up, are the... flying mounts. Oh yes, baby. And they'll be necessary for accessing some of the highest-level dungeons. As well as making people with only rubbish horses want to cry as they save up.
Early impressions indicate that Blizzard have no intention of massively changing a formula that clearly works. The new races are cunningly woven into the over-arching story, and logically connect to the access to the Outland (the Blood Elves achingly desire to move there, while the Dranei had to escape it). With no new class to play, the experience is familiar to those who've ground through each before, but of course with new threads, new folklore, and new creatures to kill or befriend. And the Outland is obviously going to be essential, no matter what it does, to anyone who MUST HAVE MORE WORLD OF WARCRAFT MUST HAVE MORE NEEEEEEED MORE DROPS NOW. Which is, well, rather a lot of people.
The Burning Crusade closed beta has only recently begun, with tidying to be done, and some areas still inaccessible while Blizzard puts in the finishing touches. We'll have more details about the Outland, and the level 60 to 70 features, in the future.