World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade

World of Warcraft gets Worldier.

The crowd is cheering. It's deafening. Wooping, cheering, merlock-blurbles: Near on seven thousand voices merging into one.

World of Warcraft is going to have Linked Auction Houses, and it's just been received like news of our Risen Lord Savoir or a free Angelina Jolie/Brad Pitt clone for everyone in the house. Looking around Blizzcon and you get a unique perspective to what people really care about. That the biggest cheer of the show was for the opening up of the free market says everything.

Which isn't to say that there wasn't jubilation of the news of the more extensive add-ons promised by Burning Crusade, the game's first add-on pack. It appears to offer a serious amount of content. Firstly, it expands the level cap to 70 and provides a whole new world section to explore. Outland. Actually, let's make that more ominous.

Outland.

*wee-eee-ooo*

And what's that then?

"Outlands is a world beyond the dark portal," explains Tom Chilton, one of World of Warcraft's two Lead Designers when we chatted to him about it, "It's going to comprise of several new outdoors zones. In a lot of ways, it'll be like crossing from Azeroth to Kalimdor. You'll go through the portal, get your load screen and there you are: Outlands. You'll start off on what we call the Hellfire Peninsula. That's a level 54-60 zone. Everything in Outlands just kind of goes from there. It'll flow like you'd expect from outdoor world zones in WoW, all the way through to the Level 70 content, dungeons, and so on."

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What's a nice girl like you doing in a horde like this?

They're taking inspiration from what's worked best in their previous attempts. "For example, one of our most successful Instances is Scarlet Monastery," Tom claims, "We model a lot of our newer instances off the success we'd seen there. Some of our more successful outdoor zones are like Elwynn forest, and we model a lot of our new outdoor content on how that flows and plays." Visually, however, it's more than just barren wastelands. "We don't just want Outlands to look like Durotar all the time," Tom notes, "We're very sensitive to the need to have those really cool terrain transitions. It should feel very similar in terms of gameplay... but very different visually. I don't think the zones that you'll find will have a lot of equivalents in the current world." For example, while weather is a new feature to the main world, its possible that it could be specially altered for Outlands experiences. "Certainly the nether storm kind of stuff lends itself to that very well. All these giant arcane storms, which would be some very cool weather," Tom hypothesises.

One of the most interesting additions to Outland is that of a new class of mounts. Flying ones. "We really felt like if you could get a flying mount in Kalimdor or Azeroth, it'd be really cool to see things from that perspective; it gives you a feeling of empowerment almost," Tom effuses, "Even the gameplay by itself is cool, and if we're going to build the world from scratch knowing that we'll have flying mounts... why not take things one step further and do things with the content."

While they couldn't add them to the main realms, as they'd break the game, that the Outland can be built from scratch can avoid that. Also, they can play tricks. "We'll put some high-level content in very hard to reach places - effectively places that you'll need a flying mount to reach," explains Tom. It's a dream for explorers, and you can draw lines to the Zelda-esque level construction where a new ability opens up aspects in a previously explored area.

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9/10 cats prefer experience points.

The second main addition is the Blood Elves, the magic-addicted race of elves who align themselves - initially surprisingly - to the Horde. On a design level, it's easy to see this as an attempt to add a "Pretty" faction to the character-full - but otherwise fairly homely - monsters. The imbalance of numbers between the Alliance and the Horde on US servers is profound, and the ugliness of the Orcs and forsaken is one reason for it. And they are terribly pretty, with an ornate glamour to them which - especially in the warriors - recalls things like fantasy author's Michael Moorcock's Elric.

Playing through their starting region - impressive cues formed for players to have an advance play of some expansion pack content at Blizzcon - reveals that Blizzard hasn't lost its touch for accessible yet atmospheric zones. The unique identity of the Blood Elves is initially played up, both in the gravity-defying floating platforms and the quests introducing their racial ability to sap mana from their opponents and then release it for an area-affect silence.

The question which remains on everyone's lips is the identity of the second race for the expansion pack. Presumably for the alliance, who could they be? Well, the void in the coverage lead Eurogamer to playfully seed the rumour of a "Viking" race, which would consist of three highly-specialised classes which demands extreme team-work between them to succeed, but most people didn't seem to be familiar enough with early-Blizzard history to get the gag. It's probably worth mentioning in passing that other journalists that when mentioning the ex-April-Fools-joke Pandaren Empire to Blizzard staff got a surprisingly cagey response... though you have to suspect that they're trying to do exactly what we were with the Lost Vikings reference.

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Will there be monsters in there? We suspect so.

They'll be a second race anyway. Yes.

Problems? Well, only a couple are obvious. The release date. Like always, Blizzard hides everything beneath a shroud of invisibility. When can we expect to see Burning Crusade on the shelves? We don't know. It's already a year since its US release. Six months from now would make it a year and a half - a long time for an MMO to go without an add-on pack. With Blizzard's carefully perfectionist release schedule, it could be an even later. Will those with maxed out character's attention linger for long?

The second reservation many have is that it's a shame that the pack isn't going to add a true new character class. "The primary reason not to do it is so we can focus more on developing the character classes we already have," Tom explains, when quizzed on the topic, "As we go from 60 to 70 we can add abilities, extend all the talent trees and work on the concept of heroes. Even though things are going to evolve, it's still very important for us to dedicate enough time to do heroes that feels really good and captures the spirit of the heroes in Warcraft III, and we don't short-change it by focusing too much on new character classes." It's worth noting, in passing, that its current vision of hero prestige classes is something that's more accessible than just the high-level elites. There's another issue which prevents the addition of new issues of a priority too. "There are players out there who haven't really exhausted all the character classes we have now," Tom argues, "How many people do you know who've maxed out every single character class? There might be a hardcore few who feel as if they've worn them all out, but for the vast majority of players, there's lots to do."

Lots to do then. For Blizzard (to complete this ambitious add-on pack) and for the millions of fans of World of Warcraft (marking days of calendar).

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