Back in October when previewing the game, I said the Burning Crusade was probably the most anticipated expansion in videogame history. I was wrong. The Burning Crusade is the most anticipated expansion in videogame history.
Why have I changed my mind? Probably had something to do with being outside HMV on Oxford Street at midnight Monday January 15, where I witnessed around 2000 fanatical World of Warcraft devotees baying for blood. The eight million or so who pay Blizzard every month for the pleasure of immersing themselves in a world full of orcs, night elves and dwarves also helped sway the decision.
With that in mind you'd imagine Blizzard were under a fair amount of pressure with TBC - as the saying goes, the bigger they are, the harder they fall. So, will the famously vociferous Warcraft community be pleased? Or will it nuke Blizzard HQ with an arcane explosion in disgust?
At this early stage it's a hard call to make. And that's not a kop-out either. MMOs are hard to review, in that they are a constantly evolving beast. Patch upon patch moulds and refines the game, balances classes, adds new areas and tweaks systems to the point where it can become a very different experience to the one reported by the reviewer. Indeed, if you compare World of Warcraft now with what it was when it came out, it's a very different game.
This will no doubt happen with TBC, but we can at least point you in the right direction. And after rinsing the game to the point where my eyes are bloodshot, my teeth are the colour of caffeine and my legs are numb, I've begun to form an opinion about the game that I believe will stand the test of time.
TBC is about expanding the World of Warcraft, not redesigning it. In no way does it reshape the gameplay Blizzard so brilliantly made accessible to a legion of non-MMO players two years ago. If you weren't interested in it before, there's nothing here that will make you interested in it now. This is about rekindling that fire grown dim by a lack of, well, things to do.
For a lot of WoW players who achieved the previous level 60 limit, the game had gone stale. With no new areas to explore, many simply left the game. Those who stayed were left facing raiding the same high level dungeons in 40-person groups night after night.
For some this was a fine and enjoyable experience - and I myself did it for a while - but for many, and Blizzard recognised this, the magic of revealing astonishing new areas with friends in small groups, and battling difficult but not impossible dungeons in five or 10 person raids had been extinguished in a tragic puff of smoke.
TBC is all about rekindling that magic. It's about getting those hordes of players who had left the game maybe half a year ago back into the World of Warcraft and enjoying it all over again. It's about experiencing the thrill of being afraid to wander from the well trodden path in Terokkar Forest for fear of getting eaten alive by an exotic monster much more powerful than you. It's about you and four friends working your way through Hellfire Ramparts and leaving your jaw on the floor when you see a gigantic demon boss about to serve you your ass on a silver platter. And there's no website with tactics to fall back on for any of this stuff.
All the new features introduced by TBC reinforce this point. New profession jewelcrafting is simply another profession. It's a pretty cool one, which allows you to create jewels you can insert into socketed items to give them stat bonuses, but it's a profession all the same. Player versus player gameplay, which isn't everyone's cup of tea, has seen a system redesign. The way honour points are calculated has been altered, and an arena system has been implemented which allows teams of two, three or five to take on each other and compete in a league.
There are also flying mounts, which will only be available at level 70 and only usable in new continent Outland. Expect bombing missions and a hell of a lot of fun with those.
By far the biggest new feature is the increased level cap, from 60 to 70, and the new continent of Outland to level up in. Again, this doesn't change how levelling works - you'll still be completing quests and grinding mobs to get experience points - it'll just be with new mobs, new quests and in new areas. Every level you'll be adding a new talent (remember that?) and every two levels you'll be buying new spells, which, essentially, is the only reason anyone does it. Oh, and to get there before your friends.
Don't get me wrong, the way the game works has stayed exactly the same. You'll be doing quests in Outland in the same way as you did them in any area in the game, and, to be honest, a lot of it in starting area Hellfire Peninsula smacks of the Blasted Lands. You'll be doing five-person dungeons straight off the bat much in the same way as you did in the Deadmines or Razorfen Downs when you were a lowbie. You'll be levelling up your skills, acquiring new spells and attacks and pretty much getting on with exploration and the level grind in no time.
If you decide to try one of the two new races, the Alliance Draenei or Horde Blood Elves, and begin questing in their new starting areas, the Azuremyst Isles and Eversong Woods respectively, essentially it's just like doing it with any of the current races, except it's new. And you'll eventually end up doing the same stuff in the same places as you would with any of the pre-TBC races.
Of course, we shouldn't complain. This is an expansion and it's doing exactly what it says on the tin. But there are a few things some players might take issue with, like, for example, the lack of a new character class, which would have given players the option of trying a completely different play style. And some players might scoff at the cheek of Blizzard charging up to 30 quid for a game expansion when they have been paying eight pound a month for nearly two years.
But it's fantastic that millions of people are having fun all over again. You can tell this by the general chat in Outland at the moment. It's full of questions about quests, where to find NPCs and how to kill enemies. It's simply alive with energy and is in complete contrast to how general chat had become prior to TBC's release.
But it can only last so long, till level 70 to be exact, but that should hopefully take even the best of us a fair few months to achieve - unless of course you're French, and absolutely bonkers.
So, at the end of the day it's clear that TBC really just serves one purpose. That purpose isn't particularly subtle, nor is it a masterstroke from developers Blizzard. But the important thing is that this purpose is achieved with a kind of wonderful self assurance you only really get from a developer confident in the knowledge it is responsible for the most popular MMO in history. If it 'aint broke, don't fix it.
Funnily enough, the manual sums it up best. "So dust off your armour, ready your mounts, and oil your blades. The adventure has just begun."