Release day for The Burning Crusade, the much-anticipated add-on to the blockbuster massively multiplayer role-playing game World of Warcraft, is drawing near, and Blizzard has now finished fine-tuning the expansion's various new factions, zones, and instances. Following on from our last hands-on preview, we take one final look over what could be another momentous event for online games.
The major changes that have occurred in the beta test in the past month or so revolve around the opening of several new zones in Outland, the major new region in the expansion. This brings the total number of new high-level zones in the expansion to seven, each of which contains enough solo content to easily last you until you hit level 70, an increase from the previous level cap of level 60. Of course, there's also more than enough group and raid content, for teams of between five and 25 people, as well as "heroic" difficulty versions, all of which will eventually lead to the forthcoming Mount Hyjal encounter--currently slated as the most difficult content to date. For the game's most dedicated players The Burning Crusade really acts as a preparation for that Hyjal encounter, but to get there, you'll need to complete a large number of complicated quests.
In our last look at the game, we covered some of what you can look forward to in the first three zones in Outland. Adventuring there will take you to around level 65, should you choose to complete all of the quest lines. The next region you're likely to head to is called Nagrand, which is a lush area full of grassland, trees, lakes, and waterfalls. Within its boundaries lie, among other things, four notable points of interest, including a large player-versus-player arena called the Ring of Trials. Then there's a giant mountainlike crystal called Oshu'gun, surrounded by ethereals, which contains something of a surprise. There's also an interesting outdoor PvP objective, called Halaa. This is a village guarded by elite non-player characters of either faction, and it's up to the opposing faction members to kill the guards and capture the town. One way to achieve this is to bomb them from above, using certain flying mount points around the boundary, and once the village is captured, special NPC vendors will become available to the controlling faction.
Anybody who remembers the various hunting quests from the north of Stranglethorn Vale will be pleased to hear that Hemet Nesingwary has also moved to Nagrand, leaving his son, Hemet Jr., in charge of his former hunting base. A small step up from there in terms of difficulty is Blade's Edge Mountains, a region of thorny hills and wooded valleys. It sits at the northern end of Outland, and as well as containing another PvP arena, the Circle of Blood, it is also home to a Cenarion Expedition base in the form of Evergrove. Another notable area is Dragons' End, home to numerous lizard skeletons and corpses.
The hardest regions you'll encounter in The Burning Crusade, and those which will take you to the new level cap of 70, are undoubtedly Shadowmoon Valley and Netherstorm. The latter of the two is set on a series of floating rock islands, in a dark landscape dominated by purple rock and a supernatural, stormy sky. You arrive there from the Blade's Edge Mountains by crossing the Gyro-Plank Bridge, and during your travels you'll encounter the latest neutral goblin town, amusingly named Area 52, which also serves as one of several new quest hubs for the region. There, you'll be able to sit and admire the space rocket that sits in the middle of the town.
What's more, there are three large eco-domes set across the region, each of which contains a lush jungle environment, away from the harsh weather outside. These are the work of one of Outland's new factions, the Consortium, an organized group of Ethereal smugglers who trade in exotic goods. Players interested in the game's lore may recognize the name of Prince Kael'thas Sunstrider--he's based in Netherstorm, floating just off the eastern edge of the map, in the instanced complex of Tempest Keep. He's joined by his most senior minions and will pose a real challenge to even the most organized groups. Finally, Shadowmoon Valley is home to the remainder of the new endgame content, specifically the Black Temple complex of instances, which Blizzard has stated will be opened in an upcoming patch. The land is dark and stony, and comets fall regularly from the sky, while numerous demons prowl about, waiting for you to stray from the path.
In addition to the Alliance and Horde faction bases, there are also outposts for both the Scryers and Aldor, two new warring groups first introduced in Shattrath City. The demonic Legion Hold, imposing Dragonmaw Stronghold, and the awesome Black Temple all overlook the blasted land below, but to access everything you'll need to save upwards of 5,000 gold coins to buy a flying mount.
One way to fund that particular project might be to further your character's professions. Tailors will be happy to know that Blizzard has finally introduced some new specializations to the craft, similar to those currently found in weapon making and leatherworking. Players will now be able to gather new types of cloth for the Spellfire, Mooncloth, and Shadoweave tailoring professions, and new patterns will be available as quest rewards and world drops, and from vendors. Alchemists, too, will now have the choice of pursuing one of three new directions in the trade, focusing on potions, transmutations, or elixirs.
As you would expect, with so many new things to see and kill, there are new ores and plants, as well as several new types of skins and enchanting materials to be had. It's unclear at this point whether professions will become more effective in terms of the general effort that's required to make any profit. That said, money seems relatively easy to come by in Outland, at least during the late beta phase we played. Most quests seem to yield several gold pieces, and random low-key loot drops (that will likely be useless to you) which can be sold for several more.
For most people, Outland will certainly represent a significant addition of content to the Warcraft phenomenon. Aside from those few who manage to attain top-end raiding or PvP rewards, most players will find they've upgraded some of their currently equipped items within a few hours of play, and probably all of them by the time they reach level 64 or so.
Fundamentally, the way that raiding guilds currently work will have to change in order to accommodate the new lower number of participants, and this is something that should make the game more inclusive on the whole. By designing Outland with the lessons learned in the past 18 months or so of developing Azeroth, Blizzard has tried to include something for everybody in The Burning Crusade.
The new PvP rules, introduced into the current game in a recent patch, will enable less-avid players to build up significant rewards over time, and the quicker five-person instances that are introduced from Hellfire Peninsula onward will also reduce the need for military-precision planning and encourage more-regular ad hoc questing. Yet while becoming more inclusive for Blizzard's army of casual players, the serious challenge posed by the new 25-person raid content, the heroic difficulty settings, and the long, complex path to Mount Hyjal should keep focused players busy for a long time to come.
Blizzard has previously stated that it plans to release an expansion every year for the foreseeable future, and if The Burning Crusade is anything to go by, it's likely that most people will still be knee-deep in Outland when the next expansion moves into beta testing.