"He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared." - Sun Tzu
"You are not prepared." - Illidan Stormrage, The Betrayer
The last time I invaded the world of Draenor through the Dark Portal it was being torn asunder in its 2-D tileset glory by the old Orc shaman Ner'zhul in the Warcraft 2 expansion Beyond the Dark Portal. In the closing of that game, the storied Alliance generals Turalyon and Khadgar, in a final bid of ultimate sacrifice, destroyed the great Dark Portal at the edge of the Hellfire Penninsula, closing the rift between the Outland of Draenor and Azeroth forever.
Or, at least until Blizzard Entertainment, developers of the super-ultra-mega-hit World of Warcraft could figure a reasonable enough deus ex machina to open the damn thing back up and open a new world to high level characters for their storied MMORPG.
Game: World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade
Hours Played: 16 + 830 w/out expansion
The Great Equalizer
The Dark Portal is the center of Warcraftian lore, and has been abused and penetrated more often than the new girl at the Moonlite Bunny Ranch. For players who have invested themselves in the history of Azeroth since the first Warcraft: Orcs vs. Humans, to stand before the open portal from which the Horde spawned and surged is to feel a sense of grand accomplishment for one's virtual avatar. When finally, with the The Burning Crusade installed and my account upgraded, the Dark Portal opened for me, I mounted my Kodo and stepped through to a world I'd not seen since my 486DX was a top-of-the-line rig.
The expansion does a remarkable job of building on one of World of Warcraft's most significant strengths, creating an engaging world that demands your participation. Players are met with a grand sight on entering the world of Draenor, a monumental battle against titanic creatures of the Burning Legion who seek to halt the Azerothian advance through the portal. For active members of a raiding guild, the harder-core segment of players with complete sets of gear and memories of slaying demi-gods, it is a tantalizing hint of content to come, but for those multitude who have never faced creatures of this grand stature before, to step through the Dark Portal is to feel like finally you are getting a taste of heretofore inaccessible content.
The Outland, and the immediately accessible content within, levels the playing field between hardcore and casual players. Within hours, as soloable quest rewards to be dropped for players of any experience and ability replace gear that demanded months of coordinated raiding or endless PvP sessions, those once locked out of Azeroth's more remarkable wonders because they couldn't meet gear or time demands will be wearing armor and wielding weapons superior to what anyone of any ability was equipping the day before.
One might imagine that negating two years of work for long-time World of Warcraft players in the span of an evening might alienate hardcore players, but instead most have reacted with a lust for vaulting the bar, which was so quickly raised so high. Instead of jealousy there is giddiness as the anticipation and enthusiasm for new content, new skills and new equipment vastly outweighs any sense of futility. With so much to look forward to in Draenor, Blizzard makes it very hard to feel any regret for the lands, creatures and equipment you leave behind.
For such an unfriendly land as Draenor, it is remarkably well partitioned into discreet and engaging encounters. Quests are plentiful, and though most are narrative disguises for familiar kill or collect quests, the areas are visually compelling, the enemies interesting and the story that develops of Outland expansion satisfying. While the game, by nature of the genre, constantly risks putting the player in a position of feeling exhausted of repetition, Blizzard has a good sense of putting small twists and events into their quests that gives players a sense of accomplishment even as hundreds of other characters are doing the exact same thing the exact same way. One centerpiece quest, gloriously repeatable, involves riding a flying mount over elite-level creatures and dropping bombs on an enemy staging area. It's a remarkably fun, if easy quest, and does a wonderful job of breaking up any sense of monotony.
The Hellfire Peninsula, the first of seven new high-level world zones, offers virtually every opportunity for the full complement of players. Solo questers have no shortage of duties to fill out. Gamers looking to build on new tradeskills have immediate access to content, recipes and components. Fans of player-versus-player combat are given three contested areas to fight over with worthy rewards for battle. And, those seeking instanced quests will find multiple wings of the Hellfire Citadel to explore with four friends.
These early instances, including The Ramparts and The Blood Furnace offer strong rewards with relatively minor time investment. Both instances can be completed in an evening, and each one offers numerous fights that are challenging without being inapproachable. Even pickup groups of relatively inexperienced level 60 characters can enjoy the Citadel while seasoned groups will be able to complete both instances without much trouble, though the rewards and the dynamics of the fights should make the time more than worthwhile for both sets of players.
But, the high level content is only one half of what The Burning Crusade has to offer. The expansion also opens the door on two new playable races, the Horde Blood Elf and Alliance Dranei, both with new cities and two low-level starter zones. Through these new races the Paladin and Shaman classes are, for the first time, available to both Horde and Alliance, hopefully ending the long and bitter cross-faction jealousy where the Horde endlessly complained about the game-breaking Paladin qualities of temporary invulnerability and the Alliance endlessly complaining about the game-breaking Shaman qualities of frost shock. Of course, in the infant hours of the expansion, both factions endlessly complained about how many level 1 Dranei Shaman and level 1 Blood Elf Paladins were running around hacking at things, but in time it's reasonable to expect things to balance out nicely.
While the new low-level areas provide a relatively organized path through the early levels, they are not quite as inspired as the world beyond the Dark Portal. By necessity much of the content is a glorified tutorial introducing the new abilities and conflicts while offering the same kinds of quests players experienced in Brill, Goldshire or Razor Hill. Fortunately, the organization of both areas makes leveling an efficient process, and pushes you in relatively short order out into the familiar world proper.
And once ejected into the traditional world of warcraft, even the familiar world has changed in some subtle, and occasionally not so subtle ways. Instead of leaving the existing continents of Azeroth and Kalimdor completely unscathed in the aftermath of the reopened Dark Portal, the expansion has given Blizzard a nice opportunity to shake up existing zones while adding new content previously barren locations.
Time Sinks Like The Titanic "… Again
The expansion is, in short, grand and almost overwhelming in its scope. Sixteen hours of play, usually a reasonable volume of time to get a firm grasp on even epic games, grants me only the barest glimpse of what awaits. To speak in an informed manner on the full scope of the expansion, to be able to talk about flying mounts, and socketed items, and jewelcrafting, and the new epic raids, and the full potential of the new classes, and the new PvP areas, and the new post-60 talents and abilities and the hundreds or thousands of tiny Blizzard touches that consistently elevates their products above most others will require hundreds of hours on top of the hundreds of hours countless players have already invested.
But, this first impression is incredibly positive, and fairly representative of the mood of the player base. Server stability and population maintenance in the aftermath of the launch was near flawless, a starling result for a game trying to manage eight million players. The party atmosphere that anxiously awaited the opening of the Dark Portal hasn't really abated, and the reaction to the new worlds of warcraft has, it seems, exceeded the incredible expectations of many players.
It seems that The Burning Crusade is exactly what many players hoped it might be. Maybe even better.