It's probably the most anticipated expansion in videogame history.
The problem for WoW fanboys like me who have been dipping their virtual toes (or, if you're a Tauren, hoofs) into the beta for the last couple of weeks is that there's absolutely masses of new stuff to wade through, and it's almost impossible to be objective about it.
I told my girlfriend that, for the fortnight I was going to spend eschewing personal hygiene for the maniacal pursuit of experience points, our relationship would be over. It turned out to be true, and I don't regret a thing. But was I enjoying myself because The Burning Crusade (TBC) is turning out to be as amazing as I had hoped, or was I enjoying myself because, well, this is new and shiny and LOOK! A NEW INSTANCE!?
I'll get to that. In the mean time, I know what you're after, and it's not an essay on my personal moral conundrums. You want to know exactly what to expect when the expansion goes retail and you can finally get to experience the wonderment that is Outland and level 70 ownage, right? HELL YEAH!
First things first, you'll want to jump on the nearest gryphon and head straight to the Blasted Lands. It's there that you'll find the newly activated Dark Portal - your one-way ticket to the shattered wastes of Outland.
Us game journalists are often guilty of over-exuberance, using tired and well-worn phrases like "jaw-dropping" and "stunning" to describe games that perhaps don't deserve it. But I can categorically deny that the following sentence contains any hype: as soon as you emerge on the other side of the Dark Portal, your jaw will drop with such ferocity that it'll knock the keys out of your keyboard.
You're spat out onto the front lines of a quite spectacular battle between the demons of the Burning Legion and the combined forces of the Alliance and the Horde. At the base of the Stair of Destiny, overlooked by the imposing giant portal, a hundred NPCs are desperately trying to fend off a gargantuan Pit Commander, a bulging winged demon with tusks and a huge sword, and his equally impressive side kicks - Wrath Masters, Infernal Siegebreakers and Fel Soldiers. Burning magical energy of all colours zips across the screen from the fingertips of Stormwind mages. The sound of Darkspear Troll Axes and Darnassian Archer arrows sinking into demon flesh is drowned out by the screams of dying Orgrimmar Grunts. It's the kind of scene you'd expect to see depicted alongside the word: "chaos" in the Oxford English Dictionary. And yes, it's absolutely stunning.
And frightening. The giant Pit Commander has the dreaded '??(elite)' symbol where his level should be. Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.
But you won't find any lions, tigers or bears in Outland. Oh my no. Leaving the carnage of battle behind, you'll find an NPC with a flight path to either Honor Hold (Alliance) or Thrallmar (Horde), the first cities you'll encounter in the Outland starting zone of Hellfire Peninsular (HP), for characters level 58 to 63. That's right, I said 63. You did know that TBC has raised the level cap to 70 right?
Having reassembled your jaw, Honor Hold or Thrallmar will quickly become your base of operations for the first few hours of your time exploring Outland. And it's hard to be a good little Elf and get on with some questing when there's a whole new world to be revealed.
Caught up in the excitement of it all, most players will find themselves accepting every quest available without giving the quest scripting the time of day. There's little reason to. The quests are basic - kill x amount of enemies, find x important items, talk to random NPC - and familiar to all who have characters powerful enough to get into Outland in the first place.
Hellfire Peninsular is reminiscent of the Blasted Lands. It has that same post-apocalyptic feel - all charred soil and defeatist music. There's a tonne of red - mostly in the form of the ground beneath your feet, but also from the intermittent sprouting columns of fire. You can see what Blizzard had in mind while shopping in Ikea for furniture - this really is a world shattered by colossal magical energies.
Confused? Don't be. WoW's new continent has a simple back story. Outland used to be Draenor, the idyllic home world of the Orcs. A while back the Alliance invaded through the Dark Portal and found Ner'zhul, a nut-job of an orc, trying to get the Horde to new worlds through magical gateways. The Alliance weren't too happy about this, as you'd imagine, and started some trouble. In desperation, Ner'zhul opened the gateways. Unfortunately, instead of providing a nice and easy escape route, he blew Draenor up.
Hence the "shattered realm of Outland" get-up. Despite the Mad Max feel, it soon feels like home, and you wonder how you managed without it. With WoW not being too graphics heavy, most PC owners will be able to pump the settings up to the max, and thus be able to enjoy the scenery in all its glory. It feels a bit like how you'd imagine being on the moon, in that it's like running around a huge red rock floating in space. There's no sky as such, no clouds, or any obvious atmosphere. You can see straight into the star-studded universe - replete with huge planets and sweeping rock clusters - a veritable cacophony of colours. No I haven't just ninjad the Dictionary of a Thousand Adjectives, it really is gorgeous in a 'just shut up and stare' sort of way.
But, playing on a PvP server, you can't spend too much time doing that. In fact, I've always thought mothers and teachers would make the best WoW players, on account of them having eyes in the back of their heads. If it's not some undead rogue waiting to backstab you into oblivion, it's another invincible blonde paladin. But hey-ho, this is war after all, and there's plenty of it in TBC.
So far Hellfire Peninsular has proved to be a blood bath. It's not particularly big, and everyone is there (as you'd expect, it's the new area). Horde and Alliance alike are, as we speak, grinding their way through mobs and quests that require the destruction of Deranged Helboars and Stonescythe Ambushers to name but a few, all for that beautiful ding which accompanies a level up. It's an experience most level 60 players won't have enjoyed (or endured, depending on your point of view) for quite some time, and so brings back fond memories of ganking in Stranglethorn Vale all those months ago.
There are also three PvP towers that can be captured on an ongoing basis, ensuring mass constant carnage. There's also a huge level 70 elite mechanical Fel Reaver that somehow manages to creep up on you on a disturbingly regular basis. The first time you see it, keep close enough to hear the cool robot sound it makes, so booming it shakes the screen.
If the beta is any indication of how things will be once TBC is released, then it's going to be as much of a headache as it is an adrenaline rush. There are only so many mobs to go round, and the re-spawn rate, while good, isn't going to accommodate 5000 players all waiting to batter the crap out of a single demonic Fel Orc. In fact, there have been some players who have predicted server crashes. While I suspect Blizzard will have thought of this, I can see their point.
HP also contains the first new dungeon TBC has to offer for high level players. It's called Hellfire Citadel (HC), and, according to the game's lore, is a "nearly impenetrable bastion that served as the Horde's base of operations throughout the First and Second Wars. For years this gargantuan fortress was thought to be abandoned... Until recently." Dun dun duuuuuun!
That's not important of course. What all you high level raiders want to know is: where's the boss and what does he drop? There are three five-man party dungeons in HC. The first one you'll try is Hellfire Ramparts, full of 60-62 Fel-Orcs. At level 60 you can easily do The Blood Furnaces if you're fairly well equipped, even though it's slightly harder. The Shattered Halls is full of level 70-72 mobs, so don't even breathe on the place until you hit the level cap. Then there's the hardest encounter HP has to offer: Magtheridon's Lair, a Onyxia's Lair style dungeon for 25 level 70 players. Expect the uberest of uber loot from the brutal pit lord.
The first thing you'll notice while raiding in HR and TBF is how short and easy they are; primarily designed to ease high level players into the new world of Outland, there are few spectacular set-pieces, rooms or bosses. You'll spend much of your time taking down groups of Fel Orcs, driven evil by demonic rage, in the traditional balletic ebb-and flow of most five man runs in WoW. In a decent group, you'll plough your way through either HR or TBF in under an hour.
There's nothing particularly spectacular. There are nice touches, like the quite frequent booming voice of Magtheridon moaning about demon Night Elf Illidan Stormrage. And there's a nice touch at the end of TBF, although I don't want to spoil the surprise. All I'll say is "look down!"
But there is something spectacular - the loot. And this is one of the most heated points of debate among players of the beta. The loot from these dungeons is in many cases better than the gear you've no doubt spent hours upon hours raiding Molten Core, Blackwing Lair, Ahn'Qiraj and, for the best guilds, Naxrammas for. If that's not a kick in the balls, then get this: a lot of this new gear is green!
Within hours of play, I'd replaced two tier two armour pieces I'd spent hours raiding BWL with my guild for. For my Night Elf priest, I grabbed a blue chest piece, Sun-Touched Raiments, with better stats than my epic robe from BWL, from the final boss in TBF. I nabbed a pair of Bloody Surgeon's Mitts from a mid-level boss in the same dungeon, also better than my tier one hand armour. Add to that the fact that the new gear has sockets for jewels (made with jewelcrafting, the new profession in TBC), which add further bonuses to your weapons, and you start to get the picture.
I can see Blizzard's point here - they're trying to give casual players a reason to play, and don't want good loot to be the exclusive preserve of fat, balding single men with no life, but it still feels like the last year or so has been a bit pointless - all those hours wiping on new bosses in MC, the hundreds of gold spent on repair bills, the five millionth time 40 of us had stayed till two in the morning to kill the black dragon Nefarion - all for naught.
It's not really as bad as that. Tier three armour will still keep you going well into the 60s, but some of the stats on green weapons and armour are absolutely brutal, and, as some players have predicted, will make many existing dungeons, like Stratholm and Blackrock Spire, simply redundant.
HP will keep you entertained up to about level 62. After that, you'll want to jump on your mount and explore the rest of Outland. Much of it isn't available in the beta, but the immediate areas surrounding HP are, including Zangarmarsh, a purple and blue coloured marsh covered in fungal forest and infested with fungal giants, spore bats and spore walkers, and the haunting beauty of Terokkar Forest, which contains Shattrath City, a capital-sized city shared by the Alliance and the Horde. This will become your home from home in Outland, much like Ironforge and Orgrimmar have done back in Azeroth - aaah, Azeroth, it seems so last season.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Rest assured, for high level players who resist the initial allure of creating a female Blood Elf paladin or a male Draenei shaman, questing, grinding and raiding in the madness that is HP will quickly become second nature.
And there's tonnes of other new stuff you'll quickly notice too, from the very small UI changes (the map icon is now on the mini-map, and there is a new 'Looking for Group' system that can be accessed where it used to be), to massive changes to talents, spells, professions and raiding. In fact, it's impossible to provide a comprehensive round up of all the new content you can expect to find in TBC, and in any case the details have been picked apart in forums all over the web. This preview is about giving you a flavour of what it's like to run around in Outland, backstabbing clothies and owning Fel Orcs.
And expect the beta to be an evolving beast - reshaping and moulding itself until Blizzard are happy and the expansion is ready for retail early next year.
I've not even touched on flying mounts, available from level 70, which allow you to reach previously inaccessible areas in Outland. Nor have I talked about other high-level dungeons, which some of the beta players who have grinded their way to the high 60s have begun to explore.
The Caverns of Time, which has just opened on the beta for level 67 upwards and allows players to go back in time and experience battles made famous in previous Warcraft games, is one. Just thinking about the boss encounters and high level loot that's hidden within the new dungeons is enough to make most experienced WoW players spontaneously fit with excitement.
And then there's the tier four armour, which Blizzard has confirmed will allow players of the same class to specialise in styles. If you're a warrior for example, you'll be able to pick the tanking plate or the dps plate. There's even a video floating around the internet of the tier four armour sets - although the person who posted it has had his account disabled for the effort!
So back to that original moral conundrum - it seems like such a long time ago now. Is the Burning Crusade really worth getting excited about? Is it worth the money to upgrade, when you'll still be able to play without it? The truth is, Blizzard could have farted onto a DVD and their legions of fans would happily lick it clean. The seven million WoW fans out there are already hooked on the visceral pleasure of getting together with mates on an evening and kicking the living bejesus out of some giant demonic dragon. TBC doesn't look like it will change any of that - in fact, if it achieves anything, it appears designed to coerce players who might have got tired of the endless 40-man raiding and quit into making a welcome return home.
The new raid dungeons have been set a 25 man limit, although the existing ones won't change at all. Rest assured, if you don't upgrade WoW with TBC, you'll be considered a second class citizen in the virtual world of Azeroth. For those high level players who do, playing TBC with friends will be like how it was playing the game when it first came out, back in February 2005 - small groups, levelling, the thrill of discovering new areas, defeating savage bosses and, most importantly of all, having a wicked laugh with your mates.
There are a few bugged quests, items missing graphics, unopened dungeons and unfinished areas in the beta. From the looks of things, Blizzard still has plenty of developing to be getting on with before TBC is complete.
The latest delay, to early 2007, is indication that the developer is not feeling any pressure to rush the expansion out, which can only be good for fans itching to log-on. Those Blizzard lot are a talented bunch, no doubt working day and night to fix everything beta players have flagged up so far.
Forget moral conundrums. For the seven million WoW players around the world, TBC is all they can think about - when the boss is moaning because a report is late, when the tutor is complaining because you've missed another class, when the boyfriend or girlfriend is nagging for some attention - it's always there, at the back of your mind, jostling for attention with reality for pride of place in your life.
And once you install the beast, see the green hue of a different login screen, hear the heroic epicness of different music, your hair will stand on end, beads of sweat will meander their way down your furrowed brow and your heart will start pumping blood a little faster around your sweating body. All this for a change of scenery. But wow, what a change of scenery.
Check back soon for part two of our in-depth Burning Crusade preview where we'll pick apart the new races, starting areas and low level content.