World of Warcraft, the most popular massively multiplayer role-playing game in the world, is set to become a bit bigger next year with the release of The Burning Crusade expansion. Currently undergoing a lengthy beta test, The Burning Crusade will add new content and features to the fantasy-themed role-playing game, which allows you to create virtual characters and explore and adventure online in the magical world of Azeroth. Following on from our previous look, in which we spent some time looking at the new Blood Elf and Draenei starting areas, we've been spending more time in the big new continent to explore in the expansion, Outland.
Outland, which consists of seven new zones, is accessible only through the Dark Portal, now located in the southeastern section of the Blasted Lands. Outland houses a massive amount of new content designed to take you from level 60 to level 70, and not only does it expand on all of the existing professions, such as tailoring, it adds the jewelcrafting profession as well. On top of that, there are new mission types to be experienced, and to tempt you through the leveling process there's a whole array of additional weapons and armor, new monsters to fight, more instanced dungeons to explore (these are dungeons that are generated specifically for your character or group), and to top it all off, flying mounts.
The first thing any adventurer will discover on heading through the Dark Portal is that the Outland is a dangerous place. As you emerge from the relative calm of Azeroth, all hell is breaking loose below the plateau on which you stand, with high-level elite creatures fighting out a massive, never-ending non-player character (NPC) battle, setting the scene nicely. Once you've checked in with your faction's base leader there, you're flown across the carnage to experience your first taste of adventure on the new continent. For Horde characters your new home will be Thrallmar, a ragged collection of buildings on the northern end of Hellfire Peninsula, while Alliance characters will head to Honor Hold, a big castle structure in the centre of the zone.
In both of these bases you'll find a whole range of NPCs that will give you your first real quests, and profession trainers who can teach you some skills up to the new cap of 375. To begin with, along with a handful of kill-or-collect quests, you'll be asked to go to various locations throughout Hellfire Peninsula to begin your relationships with a few of the expansion's new factions. As in the main game, most factions will offer you specific rewards as your reputation with them increases, and for most people some of the pieces of equipment will blow your existing gear completely out of the water. Of course, much of these are for level-70 characters and require at least "revered" status, which should take some time to achieve.
Traveling around Hellfire Peninsula gives you some idea of just how Blizzard has approached the Burning Crusade content. The zones themselves are around one-and-a-half times the size of those in Azeroth in the core game, and there is much more to see and do. The environment itself on Hellfire Peninsula is dry and dusty, a bit like the Badlands, and while there are a number of themes that hold it all together, there are at least five sets of quest-givers available to either faction.
The monsters in Hellfire Peninsula range from the first of the Burning Crusade's demonic factions to vulture packs and free-roaming boars, with enormous elite mechanical Fel Reavers shaking the ground as they pass by. The focal point of the zone in terms of geography and quest line is undoubtedly the Path to Glory--a long scar in the ground that runs east to west, culminating in the first hub of Outland-instanced missions at the Hellfire Citadel. This is the domain of the Bonechewer Orcs--the destination for a number of elite quests and some interesting five-man action. They won't pose a massive challenge for experienced players, lasting around a half hour each and featuring only a few bosses, but that does mean they should be accessible to more-casual players.
Just to the west of the Citadel are three player-versus-player take-and-hold locations. This forms the basis for world PVP in the zone and is a good way to earn faction reputation with either Thrallmar or Honor Hold. Because the factional honor system has been revamped, players who spend any time killing members of the opposition won't lose their status over time anymore--another aspect that should give players who log in only for relatively short periods of time a better chance to achieve some of the higher-level rewards. Among the more interesting quests are the bombing run missions, which sit you atop a flying mount and send you over enemy positions. You need to drop bombs in order to kill a certain number of enemy creatures by targeting them while the mount flies you along a predetermined route. It's something a little out of the ordinary in terms of what we've come to expect from Blizzard, and it makes a nice change.
It's easily possible to make your way through to level 62 in Hellfire Peninsula, but that's around 1.2 million experience points from level 60, which should keep you busy for a while. Once you're done, however, most people who don't own the tier-one armor sets obtained in the Molten Core instance should find they've upgraded their equipment either from quest rewards or world drops. Either way, you're sure to make a decent amount of gold from your pursuits, because many quests yield at least three gold pieces, and gold earned from throwaway items looted from creatures adds up, too.
After you're finally done with Hellfire Peninsula you've got a couple of choices as to where to go next. Terrokar Forest sits to the southwest and is a lush woodland zone. Most notably, it holds Outland's only neutral city, Shattrath City, which introduces another set of new factions to work for or against. The focal point of the city is a giant creature of light called A'dal, which controls the existence of the city itself. Your first quest there will have you follow an elemental that spins out some history for you, but as you go on you'll discover there's a fundamental tension between two of the city's key tenant factions.
The Aldor and the Scryers, which consist of Draenei and Blood Elves, respectively, are new factions that intertwine with Shattrath's past. Although their races would suggest otherwise, it's possible to pledge allegiance via a quest line to either of them, but because they are effectively engaged in a cold war, becoming friendly with one faction will turn you against the other. Once again, the rewards on offer are pretty tantalizing for those who spend enough time earning the right to purchase them.
JewelcraftingShattrath City is interesting in a number of ways, but, crucially, it's a link to the rest of Azeroth, because it contains portals to each of the major faction cities. Interestingly, there seem to be no plans for such simple return journeys other than begging for help from a mage, so it's wise to have your hearthstone set to an Outland location to make getting back into the action easier.
Shattrath also houses battlemasters for each of the existing PVP battlegrounds, plus introduces a couple of new ones. Eye of the storm is a combination of flag capture and take-and-hold battle modes, with a series of towers around the edge and a flag point in the middle. Taking control of the towers will cause your side's points to tick up slowly, while getting the flag from the middle back to one of your bases will result in a nice bonus. While eye of the storm is designed for 15 players per side, the arena battles should cater much better to those who practice their skills in duels, or for anybody just wanting a much quicker PVP experience. You can opt for two, three, or five per side, and it's a simple fight to the death. Honor points are awarded for killing members of the opposite faction, while arena points are given for success in the smaller encounters. They can all be saved up over time and redeemed for special faction rewards.
To the north of Terrokar Forest and west of Hellfire Peninsula sits Zangarmarsh. As the name implies, this zone is made up from shallow streams and low ground, punctuated by massive blue, mushroomlike trees. The Cenarion faction has an outpost there that serves as a useful foothold, but there are some reasonably large Alliance and Horde villages as well. The zone contains a good variety of content within its borders, with some of the main enemies being different types of naga and ogre. The middle of the region is home to another PVP-contested area, which will bestow combat bonuses on whichever faction holds it. On top of that, there's another set of instances based in the Coilfang Reservoir. Two of these are around 90 minutes in length and are designed for groups of five players of level 62 to 64, while another is for level-70 groups. A fourth instance here, which isn't open yet, is one of the new endgame 25-man raids. Once players begin to hit level 70 they'll be able to go back over a number of the instances on a new heroic difficulty setting. Although we don't have much information on just how difficult the challenge will be at this stage, it promises to be much tougher than the standard version, with separate rewards, and should provide an intriguing long-term challenge for the game's more dedicated players.
It's been interesting in our travels around Outland to note the new plants and ore deposits that are scattered around the place. Felweed and Dreaming Glory flowers sit alongside Fel Iron and Eternium outcrops, and there are plenty of new jewels, such as Shadow Draenite and Flame Spessarite, to be found as well. These latter objects will be of particular interest to anybody planning on following the new trade involved in the Burning Crusade--that of jewelcrafting. Like most of World of Warcraft's trades, jewelcrafting can take some time to learn to any degree of skill. What makes it slightly trickier right now is that the skill trainers for the profession are based only in the new Blood Elf and Draenei cities, although this may change for the full release.
The basic premise for the trade is, initially, to make rings, trinkets, and necklaces ranging from level 10 upward. You create them in a very similar way to blacksmithing items, and you combine jewels and metals for the most part. Leveling up to begin with is simple, though it helps if you're already an experienced miner--especially as we found the auction houses on the beta servers devoid of anything helpful in that area. You can also use the different types of stone to make statues that work a little like a shaman's healing totems. They become more effective the better quality the stone, and they can stack, which makes carrying them around nice and easy. As you progress through the trade you can also make a crown, but it's not until you hit skill level 300 that it begins to diverge from the usual grind-to-learn process. That's because once you max out the old level cap and begin your post-300 career you can buy recipes that will enable you to recut some of the new jewels to be found in Outland. Once recut, they can be applied to any item with a socket of the correct color (of which there are four) to add new statistics to those items.
Items with sockets can be found only in the expansion's content, and there is currently no way to put new sockets in old items. According to Blizzard, jewels applied to sockets can be replaced, although doing so will destroy the original jewel in the process--so it's a bit like enchanting in that respect. The statistic increases available from socketing span the whole range of attributes, and characters of all classes should find them useful by the time they get to around level 62 or so.
From our travels through Outland as a whole, there are a number of other, more general, observations worth making. First, the user interface has some nice new additions. The attributes in a character's information page can now be found as two of five possible drop-down menus, making stats such as ranged or spell critical-strike percentages immediately available for the first time. Also, there's a new "looking for group" system that should make finding companions for quests, instances, and other tasks even easier than either the current text channels or meeting stones do.
Meanwhile, the beneficial effects that players get from food now last three times longer than they did before, and they add a greater variety of effects, making it a much more interesting, not to mention useful, skill to spend time on. On the flipside, it seems to take longer than ever to level up your fishing skill in the expansion, and unless there are some really worthwhile rewards to be had for top-notch fishermen, this seems a little odd.
In terms of combat, the way that monsters fight in the game looks to have been given some serious thought. There are some creatures that can poison you, not just inflicting negative effects, but also positive ones too, as well as a number of master-slave relationships that add new tactical considerations to combat.
Finally, regular players will be pleased to know that Blizzard's sense of humor remains intact. Inside the World's End Tavern (referencing a famous pub in Camden, London), you'll see "famous socialite" Haris Pilton with her worg-pup Tinkerbell, and one of the new battlemasters in Shattrath City is none other then Adam Eternium himself (He-Man, for anybody who doesn't get the reference). Overall the expansion is shaping up nicely for its mid-January release, and we'll have more on The Burning Crusade before then--so stay tuned.