First Look: World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade

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There’s no debate about what made 2004 a year to remember for computer gamers: the emergence of World of Warcraft (   ), the most popular online role-playing game in the world. And unlike so many other Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs), the developers at Blizzard Entertainment treated Mac users with an equal hand, developing the software in lock-step for both Mac and Windows platforms. Now the company is on the cusp of releasing a new expansion pack for the game called The Burning Crusade. Here’s a look at what’s inside.

The Burning Crusade is being released as an add-on for the original game. It provides new capabilities for existing player characters, new playable races, a new continent to explore, and new monsters, weapons, spells, magic items, and many other things to collect and to explore.

Let’s back up for a second and start at the beginning. World of Warcraft takes places on the mythical world of Azeroth. This has been the setting for each Warcraft game since the original real-time strategy game debuted more than 10 years ago. World of Warcraft changed forever how players saw Azeroth by turning the entire geography into a massive, shared online experience. Players assume the role of hero characters made up of one of several different species of creature, ranging from Night Elves to Gnomes, Orc to Human, Tauren to the Undead. You choose a class for your character (paladin, shaman, mage, hunter, and more); then, you go on quests given to you by non-player characters controlled by the game’s servers in order to gain experience. You can collect money, items, and weapons, sell goods, buy training, and even establish professions, such as mining or enchantment.

New races

Nature Walk The Draenei may hail from the same home as the Orcs, but they couldn’t be more different.

Blizzard’s legendary ability to weave a good yarn and a seemingly endless supply of quests and story permutations to uncover and experience have brought millions around the globe to World of Warcraft. But even the most dedicated WoW player was bound to get bored after a while, and that’s where the Burning Crusade comes into play. It expands the game’s parameters by introducing two new playable races: the Blood Elves and the Draenei. The former are a group of elves that have become dependent on tapping mystical energies—even demonic ones—and have aligned themselves reluctantly with the Horde (their kin the Night Elves remain in the Alliance’s good graces). The Draenei are blue-skinned aliens who have crash-landed on Azeroth in the hopes of aiding the Alliance and finding shelter from their common enemy, the Burning Legion.

Left to their own devices, the two new playable races would be enough to tempt many World of Warcraft enthusiasts, but that’s only where the fun starts. For senior WoW players, the skill cap—the maximum amount of experience your character can accrue—has risen from 60 to 70. That doesn’t sound like much, but the amount of experience you must acquire to get through the higher levels will keep players busy for quite some time.

New places

Blizzard has also created an entirely new continent to explore—it’s called Outland, and it’s a remnant of the Orcs’ original homeworld, called Draenor (also, fittingly, the place where the Draenei have come from). This area, accessible only through an interdimensional rift called the Dark Portal, is specifically designed for higher-level players. The other two continents in World of Warcraft, Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms, have specific zones that are set up for higher players, but now WoW offers a playground that’s all their own. High level players will also be able to take to the skies of Outland on flying mounts, exploring wherever they want.

Like a Bat Out of Hell A Blood Elf surveys her surroundings on one of the flying mounts available in The Burning Crusade.

And for those players who haven’t grown tired of the geography of the existing lands in Azeroth, Blizzard has packed in many new high-level dungeons, new starting zones, hundreds of new quests, and more.

The core gameplay experience has improved, as well. Many WoW players enjoy battling each other in arena combat, so Blizzard has added a “Ladder” system that lets you play against other ranked players, working up the chain as you succeed in more combat.

Sparkly things

A new profession has been added in the Burning Crusade—jewel-crafting. Precious gems have always been part of the booty you can lift from monsters you’ve defeated in combat, but up until now, you’ve had very little to do with those gems outside of selling them to a vendor for cash you can use elsewhere, depending on your character's professions. Now you can take those gems (and other precious metals you’ve mined) and create amulets, rings, and trinkets that might provide you with short-term benefits (or “buffs” as they’re called in WoW parlance)—a damage boost to your weapons, for example, or some extra healing power or augmentation of your defensive capability.

If you remember Blizzard’s past classic Diablo II, you might also remember “socketed” items—weapons and other objects that were imbued with special powers when a gem or other precious, often magical object was placed within it. Blizzard has added socketed items in the Burning Crusade, as well, most specifically at higher levels. Leatherworkers, blacksmiths and tailors all can gain access to “recipes” to create socketed items themselves. And if you’re not lucky enough to have those skills, you might find socketed items as treasures in dungeons or available for purchase in certain locations.

Arachnophobia The Nerubis are a spider-like race that threatens to encroach on Blood Elf lands.

Better performance on Intel Macs

Blizzard was one of the first Mac game developers to release a Universal Binary version of its game after Apple began shipping Intel Macs in January 2006. In fact, Blizzard showed off a development build of WoW running on an Intel iMac at this year’s Macworld Expo—the same show where the Intel iMac was introduced. Now the company is leading the way with another Mac OS X technology: multithreaded OpenGL.

While the graphics processor, or GPU, is certainly a limiting factor in the performance of a 3-D game like WoW, it’s not the only one—the way in which the CPU, the heart of your Mac, handles data is also at issue, because much of what’s being calculated in a 3-D game is done by the CPU, not the GPU.

Multithreaded OpenGL holds the promise of improving performance for those games and applications that find themselves CPU-bound, which as it turns out, WoW does quite a bit. The technology boosts performance by splitting OpenGL rendering code into multiple pipelines on multi-processor or multi-core computers, such as those Macs that are equipped with Intel Core Duo, Core 2 Duo and Xeon chips.

Blizzard’s engineers have enabled a setting in the Intel build of the beta version of the game that I’ve been playing that allows you to take advantage of this. The net result is that frame rate rendering performance is, in some cases, dramatically improved—doubled, in fact. The biggest improvements are to areas that have really complex geometry, such as cities, or areas that have large “mobs” of players—raids, for example, or crowd scenes.

Palatial Surroundings Here’s a peek inside the Blood Elf capital, Silvermoon City.

Apple has enabled multithreaded OpenGL to function in the Intel build of Mac OS X 10.4.8, and is actively touting the feature for the forthcoming Mac OS X 10.5. It remains to be seen if this is a feature that will make it to PowerPC-based Macs, which have featured multi-processor and multi-core configurations, or if this is something that will be strictly limited to Intel Macs, but it’s exciting to see, regardless. It helps resolve a long-standing issue with the graphics performance of Macs when playing modern 3-D games.

Lots to look forward to

At this point, I’ve spent hours exploring the new lands that have been revealed and the new races that are being offered to Burning Crusade players. It’s certainly helped renew interest in this game for me, and I expect it will for many other players, as well. The Burning Crusade is proving to be every bit as satisfying an expansion pack as you’d expect from Blizzard—not a totally new game, but an addition to the existing game that adds many new challenges worth exploring and experiencing.

At last check, Blizzard pushed back the release date of the Burning Crusade from the end of 2006 to January, 2007. Objectively, the release date has only slipped a few weeks, but it’s enough to make WoW fans seethe with rage at not being able to get their hands on the add-on when they expected to. Trust me—it’ll be worth the wait.

[ Senior news editor Peter Cohen covers the gaming beat for Macworld ’s Game Room. ]

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