Last week we were reminiscing about the classic age of World of Warcraft. It was a time where hardcore players piled on hour after hour of gametime to cultivate epic gear from the powerful bosses that littered the fantasy realm of Azeroth. However, after a couple of years people were familiar enough with the game that it had begun to steadily stagnate, with some players bemoaning the lack of new content in a game which was in need of an update. Lo and behold, on 16 January 2007 Blizzard launched its first expansion pack for World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade. The new title promised to provide rich new environments, brand new races to play with and a new tighter storyline following one of the franchise's most paramount villains, The Burning Legion.
The story of the expansion followed high level players passing through The Dark Portal, a waygate between the world of Azeroth and the Orcish homeworld of Draenor. However, the world has been half destroyed and now has become a bastion of demonic power and the seat of Ilidan Stormrage, a mad Night Elf turned demon who has claimed the ruined landscape as his dominion. Now players are forced to make a stand against the trecherous Ilidan and defeat his powerful armies as well as banish a greater threat as the demonic legions continue to try and find a way to invade the realm of Azeroth.
Lovers of the franchise were practically salivating at the news that long time villain Ilidan Stormrage was returning to the game world as the primary villain of the expansion. As well as being a well established anti-hero in his own right in the expanded universe, his slow rise to power was documented thoroughly in Warcraft III and its expansion pack. This leads to several familiar characters making an appearance within Outland and the amount of fan service was staggering. The warped landscape of Outland also made a dynamic change from the world that players had been used to and helped throw in a much needed fresh quality to a game that was in danger of getting a little bit too samey.
The addition of The Burning Crusade also saw the addition of two new races , the Draenei for the Alliance, and the Blood Elves for the Horde. Followers of the storyline from Warcraft III were familiar with the magically addicted Blood Elves from their inception, and while many players did bemoan their addition to the Horde, where they had historically been bitter enemies, they swiftly became one of the most popular races to play once the expansion went live. The Draenei on the other hand were something of a mystery to a lot of players, as not much was known about them beyond the fact that they lived in Draenor. However, Blizzard worked hard to flesh out the back story of the race and give them a place in the expanded universe that would allow them to slot in almost perfectly with status quo on Azeroth. The addition of the two races did help to balance out the two factions of Alliance and Horde and helped to try and inject some new content into the existing game world.
While fans were on their feet praising at the feet of Blizzard for the new content, the new world was not without its concerns. The hardcore players who had carefully farmed the best gear from the original World of Warcraft found that the new loot they could get in Outland far outstripped the items they had worked so hard to get. This led a lot of people to feel bitter about the hours they put in being so easily swept aside and caused them to feel like Blizzard had sold their most loyal fan base short. Similarly, while the game had added a couple of new areas to the existing Azeroth maps specifically for the new races, once they were played through these new races had no where new to go and had to rejoin the rest of the world at large. This left some players feeling like there was nothing new for them between level 20 when the new player zones finished and level 58 where players could move through the Dark Portal. These intervening levels still made up a large chunk of the game, and some players found the slog between them quite dull and often gave up before powering through to the new content.
Areas where The Burning Crusade shined though was through the addition of so many more quests and storylines in Outland. Several new dungeon areas were added as well as the option to increase the difficulty for more seasoned players. The level cap was raised to 70 and more powerful monsters and enemies filled the world and represented new challenges for players to battle and eventually overcome. This kept the player base busy with more and more things to do than ever before, as well as upping the aesthetic appeal of the game world which had just started to show its age. The mix of sci-fi with classical fantasy also helped to redevelop and essentially rebrand the series by making Outland itself stand out as such a wildly different landscape from what players were used to at the time.
The main downside was with the slightly schizophrenic storytelling that occurred as the expansion began to play out. Players fought Illidan in the very first patch of the expansion leaving a lot of players to wonder what else there was to do. This led Blizzard to create additional content on Azeroth for high level players, but made it feel like Outland was something of a one shot wonder, which was a shame since there was so much that was still going for it, but had not really been explored beyond the Ilidan encounter. Finally the developers updated the game world to include a battle with Kil'Jaeden one of the masters of the burining legion who had been operating behind the scenes, and Blizzard used this as a way to try and round off the story with the threat of the Burning Legion. While it was by no means a bad move we did wonder if maybe this was a case of the company shooting its load too early, so to speak, by trying to give its loyal fans the ultimate battle they wanted, with Ilidan himself, too early. This then left them with little to do after they had defeated him.
There are two schools of thought with The Burning Crusade which leave opinion on its release somewhat divided. While many people were pleased with the concept and with the execution of some of the new content, loyal fans were left a little cold by the stark differences between Azeroth and Outland seeming to reflect the difference between casual and hardcore players. End game content was good but the task to get to Outland itself still meant playing through Azeroth which meant people itching for the new content had to wait until they got to those higher levels. While the lifelong fan wouldn't see this as a problem a casual player who just wants something new may have been left saddened.
When you got right down to it though, The Burning Crusade managed to be the expansion everyone wanted. It had a great central villain, a good story and a lot more content to keep people coming back for more. With that in mind though, sometimes it is not a good idea to give everything up front, and let the player have a little something to look forward to, something that Blizzard learnt in its next expansion.
Check back next week to see our retrospective travel back to the frozen lands of Northrend in World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King.