World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade

Still burning, still crusading.

A few months ago, World of Warcraft's first full expansion pack was finally unleashed upon the game's millions of players. We opted not to review the entire expansion all at once. Instead, we reviewed the parts of the pack which might sway new players for or against a foray into Blizzard's epic moneyspinner - the new races, new professions and new low-level zones. By and large, what we found was good; if you missed our review at the time, you can click here to check out the solid eight-out-of-ten style of that chunk of the expansion.

The reason we chose not to talk about the higher-level content in the game at that time is straightforward enough - we hadn't seen it all. Ten new levels to advance through, a new continent whose size rivals the launch content of entire rival MMOGs, around twenty new instanced dungeons to kick your guild's backside... Not to mention all manner of changes to how the basic game works. New talent trees! Flying mounts! New crafting recipes and ingredients! Equipment with sockets for stat-boosting gems!

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Prepare to travel through the Dork Portal, brave adventurer!

You certainly can't accuse Blizzard of skimping on the content. The Burning Crusade is enormous, varied and ambitious - which is why we've taken three months to get around to tackling the thorny task of critiquing the high-end content. It's not just that it's taken us three months to feel confident that we've experienced enough of the game to comment. It has also taken three months for The Burning Crusade to bed in.

Three months; for the real impact of the exodus en masse to Outland to be felt across Azeroth. For guilds to develop strategies and routines, for players to learn exploits, tips and tricks. And, of course, for bugs or unfinished features - a temporal, amorphous concept in an MMOG, as opposed to a solid bump in the road in a normal game - to be ironed out or polished up.

Justification over. We're confident that now we can talk about the Burning Crusade as it is, rather than as it promised to be at launch. Of course, if you're a hardcore WoW fan, you're probably one of the two-point-something million people who rushed out to buy the expansion in the first few weeks after launch. You're only reading this for affirmation or outrage; delete as applicable, depending on how you feel about that score you scrolled to the bottom to glance at. However, there are plenty of lapsed WoW players still waiting for Doubting Thomas to stick his fingers in the stigmata and let everyone know if the miracle is for real. We doubted as you do, brothers and sisters. Let's explore the Gospel according to Blizzard together.

Just Like You Imagined

You all know the story, presumably. The twin continents of the world of Azeroth, which have been the home to a truly ludicrous number of hopelessly addicted gamers for the last two years, were once invaded by the demonic hordes of the Burning Legion. You may recall them from the previous stunning installments in the Warcraft strategy game franchise (before it went all new-fangled and Massively Multiplayer on us) - large chaps, hooves, horns, leathery bat wings, burning flames of eternal hatred in their eye sockets. Not hard to spot in a crowd, unless you're in Camden Town on a Saturday evening.

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The first place you end up, Hellfire Peninsula, is a scarred wasteland. We believe they're holding the Olympics here in 2012, actually.

The Burning Crusade sees the races of Azeroth, effectively, taking the fight back to them. Upon the launch of the game, the Dark Portal - a giant and rather foreboding dimensional gateway which has loomed over one of WoW's high-level areas since launch - was opened. After a rather impressive battle - a once-off "world event", so either you were there to see it or you weren't, it's too late now - the Alliance and Horde forces pressed through the portal to the shattered world on the other side, Draenor.

If your eyelids are drooping at all this fantasy nonsense, don't worry. As with all of the rest of World of Warcraft, you can enjoy Outland simply as a procession of new things to kill, if that's your thing. However, for those who have followed the lore of the series so far, it's worth noting that The Burning Crusade is probably the best piece of storytelling Blizzard has done yet.

The stories of the various factions and characters in Outland are intricately intertwined, well presented and are daubed in deft strokes across the entire landscape of the game. The rest of the MMOG genre still has a lot of catch-up to play with Blizzard's seemingly effortless ability to craft a fantasy world that is consistent and intriguing without being overstuffed and pompous. Blizzard borrows heavily from Pratchett in many regards; The Burning Crusade is perfectly comfortable with presenting regal, epic or tragic moments one second, and sending you on quests for ale-sozzled dwarves or introducing you to NPCs called Haris Pilton the next.

Rich storytelling contributes heavily to one of the biggest successes of the Burning Crusade in your early experience with the expansion. From the moment you walk through the Dark Portal - which puts you right into the heart of a fresh surge against the portal by demonic forces - you are bombarded with quests, as a wide variety of characters turn to you for assistance. Each zone of Outland has multiple settlements; each settlement has between half a dozen and a dozen quests for you to get your teeth into.

Happiness in Slavery

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The Naga. You'll be slaying a hell of a lot of these, but they're scaly and hissy so you won't feel too bad about it.

It's just as well, too. One of the first things you'll notice when you pop your head into Outland is that the XP requirements for the levels between 60 and 70 are completely, ridiculously huge. While leveling between 1 and 60 saw small incremental climbs in the XP needed to achieve each level, this slow curve topped off with just over 200,000 XP for level 60.

For level 61, you'll need over 400,000. Level 62 is over half a million XP. By the time you work your way through level 70, you'll be looking at racking up over 800,000 XP - numbers that seem daunting even to the most ardent grinder.

The truth of the matter, however, is that the actual leveling process between 60 and 70 is a breeze. In a game where many players boast of being able to manage the entire 1-60 progression in under a fortnight of intensive play, it's not surprising that the first level 70 characters were strolling around WoW servers within a week of the Burning Crusade being launched. What's perhaps more surprising is that even a fairly casual player can expect to hit 70 within a month, without any significant wailing or gnashing of teeth along the way.

This is a testament to the fantastic job Blizzard has done of building the progression structure in Burning Crusade. You'll never grind for XP in this expansion. As you discover new areas, you are given a vast number of quests to do, which will give you just enough XP and enough new items to allow you to explore the next area, where the cycle begins anew. It's so perfectly, accurately worked out as to be almost breathtaking; this is a game where the allocation of XP, gold, and a million other points and statistics is defined with a precision that would make a physicist weep for joy.

What's more, the Burning Crusade finally gives players a bit more variety than the usual "My leg hurts. Please kill 82 badgers." quests which made up the bulk of the leveling experience in World of Warcraft. Admittedly, you'll still be sent out fairly often to kill a certain number of badgers, or collect a certain number of dropped items - and we'll never quite understand how in the hell it's possible to kill 20 badgers and only have two of them drop any god-damned fur.

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Terrokar Forest is a complete stylistic change from Hellfire. Each zone in Outland is incredibly different from its neighbours, much more so than in the original game.

However, the monotony is broken up nicely by quests which see you bombing enemy positions from the back of giant griffins, or dramatically summoning a vast undead dragon which swoops through the skies. These "special" quests are a far cry from the usual badger-killing antics, and a real step forward for Blizzard's quest design. Outland's zones also feature a host of PvP objectives which give you a perfect excuse to batter your fellow players around the place. Most of these are capture-and-hold exercises, but our personal favourite sees you trying to capture an entire village, an exercise which involves wiping out its defenders with aerial bombing runs.

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