E3 06: World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade Impressions

We take an up-close look at the highly anticipated expansion pack for one of the most popular online games around.

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LOS ANGELES--Electronic Entertainment Expo 2006 is underway, and so is Blizzard Entertainment's presence on the show floor. The studio is showing off The Burning Crusade, the upcoming expansion pack to the wildly popular massively multiplayer online game World of Warcraft. As the studio revealed previously, the expansion will offer two new playable races; the fanatical blood elves for the Horde faction and the recently revealed Draenei faction for the alliance. The Draenei previously appeared in World of Warcraft as the twisted, hunched monsters in the Swamp of Sorrows area, though according to producer Jeff Kaplan, these monsters were corrupted by the demonic horde known as the Burning Legion (the same demonic influence that turned the noble savages known as the orcs into the savage brutes they had become in the earlier Warcraft games). The creatures are descendants of the race known as the Eredar--to which the pivotal character Archimonde belonged before he, too, was corrupted in Warcraft III. The playable Draenei characters are tall, statuesque humanoids, with hooves for feet; tiny horns on their heads; and pale, shimmering skin. Apparently, the new race will be able to join five different character classes: warriors, hunters, paladins, mages, and priests.

The new race will also possess new innate abilities, including a heal-over-time skill called Blessing of the Naaru, though it won't be overwhelmingly powerful ("it's on par with a renew or regrowth [spell]," explained the producer) but will scale up with your Draenei character's level and be useful enough for reducing downtime (the time required to sit and recover from wounds after battle). The new race will also have an innate ability called Heroic Presence, which functions a bit like a paladin character's aura and grants all characters in the Draenei character's party a bonus probability to hit their targets. The race will begin with a substantial plus-15 skill bonus to the expansion's new trade skill of jewel-crafting, which will let players fashion magical trinkets, as well as magical gems that can be added to the expansion's new socketed items. Socketed items will include multiple slots for gems of specific levels (for instance, we were shown a high-level magical hammer that had three slots that required gems of at least level 70). You'll be able to mix and match different gems into an item, but once you decide to socket them, you won't be able to remove the gems (though you can overwrite them with new ones later on). Blizzard is apparently attempting to encourage players to not simply "min/max" (that is, focus exclusively on specific abilities at the expense of variety) by, for instance, focusing only on gems that only give bonuses to your percentage chance to hit your enemies. To combat this, the expansion will have metagems--special gemstones that grant bonuses when a variety of different gems are used (such as granting a special bonus to your mage character's intellect if you socket gems of all different colors, for instance).

The Draenei will also have an innate resistance to shadow-based magic spells, and perhaps most importantly, their females won't be horribly ugly as some skeptical players had speculated. (The Blood Elf race was added, among other reasons, to help "beautify" the Horde faction, since most of the game's online server communities are heavily skewed toward the Alliance faction, thanks in no small part to the way female night elf and female human characters look).

We also had a chance to take a look at some of the areas in the Outland, the huge new region that the expansion pack will add to the game. The Outland will be accessible by The Dark Portal, a magical rift in space and time created by the sage Medivh (who prophesied the catastrophic events in Warcraft III) and will house a number of highly varied areas. In fact, even though you'd expect the mysterious Outland to be nothing but barren wastes ravaged by demonic hordes, Kaplan suggested that the new area will actually host a great variety of different environments, including a lush, green grassland called Nagrand--the ancestral home of the once-peaceful orc tribes. However, although Outland will offer new dungeon content for hardcore fans looking for a challenge, pretty much all of the Outland's other areas will be sprawling, continuous outdoor areas that will allow plenty of room for many different adventuring parties. To navigate these vast new areas, the expansion will add flying mounts, such as winged dragonlike characters that can run along the ground even more quickly than the fastest epic mounts in the game and also take to the air at any time and fly anywhere. Though you'll need to have a character at level 70 to get your own flying mount, you'll enjoy increased freedom of movement--and apparently, Blizzard's content team is also designing out-of-the-way pockets of content and monster camps to be discovered by adventurous players who don't mind exploring the new areas.

And according to Kaplan, all of the Outland's new areas will contain at least one internal competitive player-versus-player area (some of the larger zones may host multiple PVP hotspots). This new addition is part of Blizzard's efforts to help balance out World of Warcraft's current PVP situation, which many critical players feel is unbalanced due to the game's honor system (which requires incredible amounts of time to advance). Said the producer, "we recognize that PVP is a flawed area of the game that we'll do a better job of fixing in The Burning Crusade." Kaplan also offered that Blizzard has longer-term plans aimed at improving the way PVP works.

If nothing else, Burning Crusade looks like it should offer huge tracts of land for players to walk across. Fortunately, it will also offer lots of new quest content, flying mounts, crafting skills, playable races, and highly substantial starting areas for each of those playable races (each race will apparently have at least one sizable zone that will let players advance from levels 1 to 20, similar to Elwynn Forest for Alliance characters). According to Kaplan, Blizzard would very much like to release Burning Crusade some time in 2006, but the producer added, "we're Blizzard, and we focus on quality first." Whether this focus on quality will push the expansion's release past 2006 remains to be seen, but we'll keep you posted on any developments.

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