The Burning Crusade

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Logged into World of Warcraft lately? Yeah, you and 7,999,999 other people around the world. Very soon, you'll notice Azeroth suddenly filling with female Blood Elf paladins and male Draeni shamans, while all the level 60 characters suddenly discover lots of new and exciting things to do. That is, if you can log in at all. Yup, the Burning Crusade is upon us, and we have the skinny.

First up, Burning Crusade tackles three problems that have faced Warcraft's character range ever since its launch. Specifically, the Horde can't play paladins, the Alliance can't play shamans, and all the Horde races are an ugly bunch (which is, admittedly, aligned with the faction's nature). Now the full set of character classes is open to both Horde and Alliance players, plus, perhaps more importantly for Alliance-skewed PvP servers, the Horde has a race with cute-looking female models.

Meanwhile, the Alliance has a race with ugly blue blobby models. It's tough to get too excited about the Draeni just because of that, although their racial abilities -- a heal, a couple of passive party bonuses, and a bonus to the new trade skill Jewelcrafting -- are decent. The Draeni city, Exodar, is constructed from the wreck of a giant dimension-jumping spacecraft, even. Best of all, their dance animation is inspired by the great Daler Mehndi.

Sure, these pseudo-sci-fi lands of the Draeni are appealing, in a sterile sort of way. We're wondering what a race that can build spaceships is doing poncing about in fields waving swords, but that's another story -- and there's probably some hackneyed Warcraft lore explanation for it all. No, the Blood Elf lands are the place to be, with their second stopping zone, Ghostlands, being the best looking WOW zone so far.

Besides, Blood Elves get to ride on chocobos. Chocobos, man! Sure, the game calls them something else, but we don't care. That's reason enough to play a Blood Elf right there, as if the lithe models and appealing magic-focused racial abilities weren't enough.

Jewelcrafting, the new trade skill added by Burning Crusade, promises to add more customizability to your kit. Experienced jewelcrafters can make rings and necklaces, but most of the appeal comes from their ability to prepare gems for insertion in special "socketed" armor and weapons. Diablo II player will recognize this idea, of course.

Is it worth giving up an existing profession for it? You'll need a lot of materials to level jewelcrafting up, and they'll command high prices in the early days of the expansion as everyone and their dog tries it out. All this supply will also mean you'll have a hard time selling goods you create. It's quite the money sink, but it's certainly worth checking out if you're creating a new character.

So how about the new zones? Your trip to the Outlands will start with a stroll through the imposing Dark Portal and continue with what'll likely be quite some time in Hellfire Peninsula, probably the largest and most complex zone in the game so far. Your journey to level 70 will take in plenty of new zones, new instances, flying mounts -- you know, the usual stuff.

Did we say flying mounts? Yes: gryphons for Alliance characters and wyverns for the Horde, although there are rarer ones for the more uber players. Some Outlands content simply can't be accessed without one, so even without the considerable coolness factor, they're an essential purchase on reaching 70. Sadly, you can't use them outside the Outlands - these zones simply aren't set up for flying, although there's a chance that'll change in future.

Don't be in too much of a hurry to head through the portal, though, especially if you're on a PvP server. Remember how crowded the starting zones were when the game first released? Although Blizzard promise they have new strategies to adjust spawn rates to cope with demand, it remains to be seen how well they'll handle the launch day crowds. If you are on a PvP server, you'll not only have crowds, you'll have gankers to contend with as well. In other words, it's not going to be pretty, even if the servers can take the strain. If they can, it'll be a first for Blizzard.

Those who opt to leave the Outlands for another day and create Blood Elf or Draeni characters aren't guaranteed a smooth ride, either -- those zones will be nearly as crowded, although new characters should leave the 1-10 starting zones faster than the level 60 crowd will vacate Hellfire Peninsula. However you slice it, you're not going to find a low-stress Burning Crusade experience for some time.

But you should buy it anyway. Why? Because we're all ready for more, and there's plenty more here. Burning Crusade is an essential purchase for any serious World of Warcraft player -- but then we knew that, right? Any serious World of Warcraft player has had their Collector's Edition on pre-order for months already, and they've already polished their staffs in anticipation of dressing up for the midnight launch ceremony. (Speaking of, check back later this week for our video coverage of this event!)

Casual players, unless you're hurting for things to do with your level 60s or just can't live without playing a Blood Elf, need not be in so much of a hurry. Skip the queues and the aggro; let the hardcore, poop-in-a-sock crowd have their fun, because the Outlands will still be there when they've all raced through it and are farming whichever new instance has the best loot-to-effort ratio. In fact, casual players -- or, indeed, anyone with a low frustration threshold -- might just as well plan on finding something else to do with the next few weeks.

When it finally smoothes out, Burning Crusade players will have a whole new continent to explore, two compelling new races, a useful new profession, and a pile of other worthwhile changes. Launch issues aside, there's absolutely no reason why any World of Warcraft player should hesitate to pick it up. Consider it essential.

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