Since its release just over two years ago, World of Warcraft has managed to attract the largest audience any MMORPG has yet to see with over seven million players worldwide. While the original title has seen many changes and additions in content, it has yet to see a formal retail expansion. That is, until next week when World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade is released to the throngs of players thirsty for new content. So far, it looks like this expansion is just what the audience is looking for.
The first and most notable changes coming in the expansion are the increased level cap, from 60 to 70, and the addition of two new races to the game's factions. The Horde will see the magic-hungry Blood Elves joining their ranks and the Alliance will see the Draenei crash landing, literally, into their world. With the addition of the new races, Blizzard is removing the faction-specific boundary on Shaman and Paladins, who were previously exclusive to the Horde and Alliance (respectively). The Blood Elves will have the option of choosing the Paladin class, and the Draenei will be able to be Shaman. While cries from some players over this choice have been heard, it seems that this is being done to help balance some of the more difficult content and maintain the unique flavor of each class.
Both of the new races have their own starting and secondary zones. These areas will take players through their first 20 or so levels before they must enter the pre-existing zones of Azeroth. These zones are very well fleshed out with quests and lore for players to experience, and while the are being tacked on to the existing world, they do not feel that way at all. In some cases, the opening zones actually provide better rewards and player skills than the original races' zones. For example, there are quests that require a player to swim, a skill that otherwise a player might not encounter the need for until the 30s.
"So far, it looks like this expansion is just what the audience is looking for."
Outside from the new starting zones for the Draenei and the Blood Elves, the bulk of the new content takes place in the Outland, which players access by passing through the Dark Portal, a centerpiece of Warcraft lore. There, players will find the Outland, a large continent featuring seven new zones and a multitude of new quests and dungeons to explore. With these new zones, Blizzard has gone to great lengths to take player feedback and accomplish far more than the original release did. The zones of the Outlands are absolutely packed with quests, enough that a player can earn all the experience they need to level to 70 completely by questing, the bulk of which can be completed solo. There are new outdoor player vs. player objectives in many of the areas, allowing for free-for-all combat between players. Being on the winning faction will give you some sort of buff while in the zone. On the beta realms, the outdoor PvP was quite fun, but there is a lot of concern that on servers with imbalanced faction population the PvP objectives are a lost cause for the underpopulated side.
The dungeons of the Outlands implement a winged design, each housing 3-4 different instances, which are tuned for different levels. This is a excellent move because it allows for shorter instances, as most of the 5-man instances can be done in under one hour, without cutting down on overall content. All the 5-man dungeons will offer heroic modes, which are for level 70 characters and are tuned to be especially hard. The first dungeon that a player will encounter is Hellfire Citadel which has the Ramparts, an instance for levels 60-62, as well as Magtheridon's Lair, a 25-man raid encounter for level 70 players.
Speaking of raid encounters, another major change in The Burning Crusade is the reduction of the player group in the raid environment. Previously, top-end raids were designed around 40-man groups, with smaller raids available in the 20-man variety. To make these raid dungeons more accessible to most players, the player cap has been decreased to 25 for top-end raids, with a smaller 10-man raid available as well. While the 25-man raids are plenty, it would have been nice to see more then one 10-man raid, but that seems to be all that is coming for now.
Another change in the way the raid game is played is that now raids will have a sense of progression. Players will have to meet new requirements to access these raids. Most of the 40-man raids were implemented with rather simple requirements to let players gain access, such as a simple quest, or a certain reputation level. In The Burning Crusade, players will have to accomplish a lot to gain access to most of the raid content, including completing prior raid content. For example, to access the Caverns of Time 25-man raid, players must defeat Lady Vashj and Prince Kael'Thas, both of which are bosses for other 25-man raids. Looking at the big picture of dungeon attunment, it first seems like an overwhelming undertaking that only the most hardcore players will ever accomplish. However, in reality is is nicely sequential in difficulty and reward.
On top of all these changes being made to the game for player vs. environment are also changes to the game's player vs. player. The honor system in World of Warcraft just went through an extensive overhaul, and The Burning Crusade will introduce the new Arena system. The arena, unlike the current battlegrounds, will be direct matches between teams of 2, 3 or 5 and have strict limits on items and abilities. Arena matches will not allow the use of consumable items and players will be unable to use abilities with longer then ten minute cooldowns. This is really for the best, as it levels the playing field between rich players with tons of consumables and those who prefer not to use them. Arena games are designed to be a match of skill, although gear plays a notable factor. The teams will be formed on charters, much like guilds, and ranked on an official ladder. Ranking in the ladder will be calculated every week, and then points will be given out associated with placement. These points will be used to purchase extremely high quality equipment specifically tailored for the PvP environment. Another PvP addition being made is a new battleground, Eye of the Storm. A mix of the king of the hill and capture the flag styles of play, this adds yet another dimension to the so-far thriving PvP combat in the game.
There is a lot of new content for all players to experience in the coming expansion, be it for the solo player, raider, or PvPer. While playing the beta suggests good things, only time will tell for sure if Blizzard manages to deliver on all its promises.