Since 2004, World of Warcraft has wrapped its battle-hardened fingers around a Game Rankings score of over 90 percent from over 70 media outlets. It greedily swiped our Editor's Choice award, too -- guilty as charged. And we might have even haughtily declared "All hail the new king of MMOs." Yet … how naive we still were in uttering such a wide-eyed statement. How little could we (or anyone) have predicted the earth-shattering success that WoW would become? Sure, one could've guessed that it would ascend as the new crown holder, but nobody was using the word "millions" in their predictions, not at a time when a few hundred thousand gave your game a daunting portion of the MMO cash cow.
I'll spare you the lurid details, but Blizzard hasn't just broken gaming industry records, it's set new records so high that no announced or established MMO within the next couple years will even touch its record (sorry, all you Lord of the Warhammer of the Burning Sea of Hyborean Adventures hopefuls). And it's not just because WoW is riding on a wave of bravado: It's reaping the rewards of diligent research, a commitment to mind-blowing art, well-worth-the-read plotlines, and the dutiful adherence to the North American standard of non-grinding online gaming mechanics.
While success builds upon success, as is the case for The Burning Crusade, World of Warcraft's first official expansion, Blizzard proves once again that the payoffs can be big for a business with a solid work ethic, an eye for what will succeed, and a willingness to cut what doesn't. Still, for everything that BC denies its buyers (nope, still no player housing, guild halls, or new character classes) it definitely shores up what's missing by what's altogether present. You can even play right out of the box without waiting in a queue hundreds of people long, or getting stuck in a crouching position when you loot a corpse; those that partook in WoW's debut know exactly what I'm talking about. Rest assured, however, that the layer of polish in BC is almost mirror-like. Sure, I chanced across a meddlesome bug or two, but there were definitely no showstoppers to speak of.
The over-the-top battles are still hard hitting and gutturally satisfying, even from level one. And while BC may be largely aimed at the level 60 - 70 crowd, the introduction of two new races -- Draenei for the Alliance, Blood Elves for the Horde -- can almost restore that brand-new feeling that's perhaps been ebbing away these last couple years.
The unveiling of Outland takes the senior crowd into a temporally-sundered landscape, which is sparing in vegetation and ample in lacerated, rocky outcroppings. The monolithic raids of the original endgame have been scaled down in the number of required participants for the new endgame, and conversely scaled up in strategic considerations. Instanced areas now take up greater real estate in quests, and ethereal, flying mounts eat up reels of trailer footage as the new hot-ticket item.
The Alliance has more than earned the burly, hoofed Draenei to their cause. Their presence introduces the shaman class over to the good guys' side, and provides a visual foil to the Horde's menacing Tauren. The Draenei's overtly spiritual society speaks well for those assuming a shamanistic occupation, but paladins, priests, and noble spirits of the remaining classes will thrill to the holy endurance of these peoples. Crashlanding onto the planet's surface, the Draenei strive with whole heart to seek harmony with the land, live peacefully with the denizens, and prepare to face an enemy they've been evading for millennia.
The Blood Elves, however, do not pursue such a demure coexistence in Azeroth. While bringing sexy back to a Horde that admittedly never had it in the first place, they also breed their own twisted form of paladinhood, shoveling a little 'dark night' on top of the 'holy avenger' motif. The decadent Blood Elf lifestyle and continuous struggle against the land bleeds across their entire existence. For both the Draenei and the Blood Elves, expect luscious panoramas beset with a creatively-composed monster compendium: Some fresh from a Blizzard brainstorm session, others resigned as old standbys. Either way, the Creative Department more than earned their overtime pay for BC.
This expansion also adds jewelcrafting as a professional pursuit, granting the practitioner the skill to create typical jewelry trinkets, magically-infused ones, and even buffing gems that socket into your favorite hilt or pair of dungarees. And in a game inexorably driven by mathematics (as roleplaying games tend to be) having that extra +8 to spell damage or +7 to stamina can make all the difference between looting corpses … or doing a corpse run.
Calling an expansion pack a "crucial" addition is a tough call in a game with so much ground to cover in the excellent original campaign. It's a tough call -- except in this case. Not only has the all-important storytelling card been perfectly played in BC, the quests, narratives, expanded gameplay, and superlative artwork trumps the original. Long live the king.
Level 70 -- ding! New spells, two stellar new races with gorgeous starting points, the new Outland continent, numerous new zones and dungeons, hundreds of new monsters, quests, and items, a new jewelcrafting profession, and new flying mounts in Outland. The guilty-pleasure, fast-food champion of MMO gaming has expanded their menu, upgraded their sides, and supersized everything on your tray. Eat up.
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