I don't typically review games other than Everquest here at Mobhunter, but it would be foolish to ignore the release of the Burning Crusade, the most popular expansion for any game ever released. Study of the strengths and weaknesses of the Burning Crusade and how it changes World of Warcraft can help us scope our thoughts around the future of Everquest.
I must add one last disclaimer before we continue. The Burning Crusade is huge and I have barely scratched the surface of all of the new zones, encounters, and quests it contains. This article also will not attempt to either sell or steer people away from the Burning Crusade. With 2.4 million sales world wide within the first 24 hours of release, most people who want it have purchased it already. This article will focus on what I have seen, so far, and what I have heard about some of Blizzard's new philosophies towards massive online gaming. Let's begin.
The release of the Burning Crusade was one of the few times I purchased an expansion, installed it, patched it, and began playing it on the day of release. There weren't any noticeable follow-up patches. There wasn't any major downtime. Only a large player queue on Doomhammer kept me from jumping right in at level 60.
World of Warcraft has always had the best new-character experience I've seen in a massive online game. It's easy to get into it, it scales character complexity well, it shows new players how WoW quests work, and it gets people right into the core beauty of WoW's artwork. The blood elf newbie game is no different. There are tons of quests that help players understand who the blood elves are and why they're different than the other races. The newbie lands are beautiful and packed with low-level monsters that break free of the typical rat, bat, and spiders found in most low-level areas. The blood elf lands transform from the serene low-level newbie yard to the dark and ominous Ghostland where blood elves can level from 11 to 20 before heading to the older zones for the rest of their trip to level 60.
Spending ten hours or so in the blood elf lands almost makes you forget that over 80% of this expansion is focused around level 60+ characters. When the queues died down, I brought in my level 60 night elf hunter, Glave and headed into the Outland.
Never have I seen such an ominous portrayal of the lower planes than my initial exploration into the Outland. You fly on griffin back over the front lines between the armies of Azeroth and the demonic armies of the Outland. Then the full scope of the army becomes apparent. Huge six-armed female demons walk with blades in hands. Massive winged and horned commanders lead legions of fel-beasts across the broken wasteland. Looking up one sees the alien skies and the rings of dark magics let loose. The griffin takes you to the broken keep of Honor's Hold, a fortress of stone protecting a small attack force of Azeroth from the fiendish wastelands surrounding it. At the fortress your mission becomes clear when you talk to your first taskmaster:
"Collect seven fel-boar snouts"
Yes, we're back into World of Warcraft, where the storyline rarely strays far from your collection of eight to twenty snouts, tails, eggs, horns, teeth, gears, crates, runes, and other random items.
There are thousands of new quests in The Burning Crusade that can take new characters from level 1 to 20 and older characters from level 60 to 70. Those quests, however, are not often more than very simplistic "kill X beasts", "collect X drops", "kill boss X", or "talk to X NPC". There is no in-game differentiation between the most boring "help me make an omelet from demonic bird eggs" and the most interesting "help us battle the demonic minions of the Outland" quests. There is no identification of quest chains until you actually finish them.
Small, quick, and uninteresting quests are certainly better than no quests at all. I haven't spent any time at all worried about earning experience from each mob - only whether that mob helps me in my eternal task to empty my quest book. Massive mechanized Fel Reavers wandering through the solo grounds of Hellfire Peninsula helps make things interesting as well.
There is a lot of room for improvement in Warcraft's quest system. Blizzard would do well to consider the following improvements:
- Clearly define quest chains. I'm not likely to get through every quest I'm ever given before moving on, but I shouldn't be forced to check ThottBott just to find out if that boring egg-omelet quest is part of some chain of epic proportions.
- Add group quests associated to instances. The one instance I tried in the Burning Crusade, the Hellfire Ramparts instance, didn't need much in the way of a quest to get us from beginning to end, but a little bit of a story and an overall group quest that led us through it helps more than just zoning in and killing whatever happens to be around. Sharing solo quests helps but most of the quests in World of Warcraft cannot be shared - leading to wasted minutes of confusion on "Can you share any quests? Where did you get the quest? Let me go get it. Oh, I don't have the faction yet. Oh, that was part of a chain I missed."
This is one area where Everquest's mission system really shines through. I know exactly what our group's goals are in an Everquest mission. I know what the story is. Our group works towards a common goal, not the individual accomplishments of five different quests.
Blizzard took a somewhat new approach towards single-group instances. Each of the larger instance sets contains smaller one-hour focused dungeons tuned for characters of a certain level and certain power. My attempts at the Hellfire Ramparts confirmed that these instances take about an hour to get through, in either victory or defeat. While we hear about much longer dungeon durations in Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, the one-hour dungeons in Burning Crusade fit well into the rest of our lives. My days of spending 12 hours a day, three days over a weekend raiding the Plane of Sky are over. I want to get in, have some fun, and get on with my life.
The change to meeting stones was also a great change. Instead of meeting stones helping artificially build dungeon groups, meeting stones now let two players in a group summon the other three to the beginning of a dungeon. This, mixed with the new but somewhat uninspired "Looking for Group" tool, helps players get together quickly and get into a dungeon.
Unfortunately, the Burning Crusade lacks any new instances for characters below level 60.
Blizzard also took a new strategy towards raiding. All of the raids in Burning Crusade take no more than 25 people - down from the 40 person raids in the original game. While many high-end raiding guilds hated the decision, the smaller number of players means that more high-end guilds will exist and more people will have access to these high-end raids.
It creates a clear difference between Everquest and World of Warcraft. It is unlikely SOE will ever stray away from the 54 person raids currently contained within Everquest and its expansions. Between that and the group focus of the missions found in the upcoming Buried Sea expansion, SOE has clearly defined the difference between Everquest and Warcraft.
One last major shift found in the Burning Crusade also had high-end raiders reeling. The shift in power between old-world equipment and equipment found in the Burning Crusade is huge. With my 60 hunter I found upgrades to my blue instance-awarded gear for every slot with 20% overall power increases from the green rewards of solo quests. Even basic 60+ solo quest rewards have made the rewards of most of the level 60 dungeons in the old world obsolete. Some condemn this change as the ultimate in mudflation. I know I've had a lot of fun working towards a new set of equipment that I'd been wearing for months.
I was very much looking forward to the Burning Crusade. Most of my time after hitting level 60 in Warcraft was spent leveling up alternate characters or wandering aimlessly through Ironforge and getting stomped into the ground in Battlegrounds. Burning Crusade breathed new life into my high-level characters and helped inspire me create a new low-level one. I've barely scratched the surface of this huge expansion and I'm looking forward to spreading the rest of it over the next year or two. Quips aside, the Burning Crusade is the most exciting expansion I've ever played.
28 January 2007