'Burning Crusade' was worth the wait

The supermodel-vain Blood Elves are one of the two new races offered in Blizzard Entertainment's "Burning Crusade," the expansion to "World of Warcraft."
The supermodel-vain Blood Elves are one of the two new races offered in Blizzard Entertainment's "Burning Crusade," the expansion to "World of Warcraft."Blizzard Entertainment
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

I’m standing knee-deep in bodies amid a bone-strewn hellish landscape. In front of me stands the demonic menace Highlord Kruul, who is only too happy to devour me in one gulp. The Dark Portal has opened, and my beloved Azeroth will never be the same.

Welcome to the "World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade."

"Burning Crusade," by Blizzard Entertainment, is the company’s first expansion pack to “World of Warcraft.” In case you’ve been imprisoned in a magical tower for the past two years, here’s the rundown: “World of Warcraft,” or “WoW” in game parlance, is the staggeringly popular massively multiplayer online role-playing game responsible for countless lost hours, strained marriages, forgotten homework, and sleepless nights.

“WoW” recently tallied its 8 millionth subscriber, making its population close to that of New York City. It’s even earned its place in pop culture by being skewered by the “South Park” gang.

With numbers and notoriety like that, the stakes are high for this next installation of the “WoW” franchise. Blizzard has to knock this sucker out of the park, or face the wrath — and possible exodus — of millions of fans paying upwards of $15 a month.  Do the math. That’s a gravy train Blizzard has no intention of derailing.

So does this $39.99 expansion pack (available for Mac and PC) have what it takes to please hardcore fans while still attracting new adventurers? At the risk of sounding like an unabashed fanboy — yes. “Burning Crusade” strikes that hard-to-achieve balance beautifully, offering plenty of fresh content for high-end players and a nice, friendly learning curve for newcomers. And, as with the original “WoW,” the opportunities for exploration and immersion are virtually unlimited. So find a comfy chair: That’s where you’ll be sitting for countless hours as you get addicted all over again.

Veteran “WoW” players will be comforted to hear that all the elements that made the original so great are still in place. To start, you create a character from eight races, which will put you on either the Horde or Alliance side, and then you choose from a variety of classes. Every race and class has its strengths and weaknesses, and there’s near-limitless ways to play your character. And if you don’t like what you’ve chosen, you can always roll again.

Like swinging a sword? Try out the warrior or paladin class. Want to get all Gandalf on someone? Check out the mage or warlock class. No matter which direction you choose, you start off in a safe homezone, gaining skills and riches as you take on bigger and more challenging quests.

New features in “Burning Crusade” include Outland, a massive new continent geared for experienced players. This virtual playground is loaded with bigger, badder monsters like the carnivorous Ravagers and juicier rewards, like powerful armor and weapons.

Speaking of rewards: Players who capped out at level 60 in the original “WoW” get to continue up to level 70 in “Burning Crusade.” This means players have new opportunities to invest dozens of hours amassing new talents and spells. And at the end of the level 70?  Hop on a personal flying creature to cruise over the countryside — a nice perk.

Next to Outland, the heftiest “Burning Crusade” addition is the introduction of two new playable races: The interstellar-refugee Draenei and the magic-addicted Blood Elves. The supermodel-vain Blood Elves have the edge here, thanks to their magic-draining powers, and the Draenei handle more like an afterthought. They’re solid, but more generic characters, and play like an excuse for the Alliance to be able to play as the formerly Horde-exclusive Shaman class (the Horde, in return, now get access to the Alliance’s Paladin class).

In addition to the new races, this fantasy adventure contains plenty of new dungeons — and difficulty settings to make gameplay more challenging for advanced players. Meanwhile, the high-level dungeon raids have been capped at 25 players, down from 40 in the original "WoW." This is more challenging, forcing players to choose their teams with greater care.

If you prefer smack downs to dungeons, you’re in luck: “Burning Crusade” features a new player-versus-player Arena, where teams of two, three or five do battle for fortune and glory. You can also try out a new battleground, called Eye of the Storm, that mixes Capture the Flag and domination.

But “WoW” isn’t just about battles and exploring. It’s also wise to pick up a trade. And in this new installation, jewelcrafting is the newest profession. Don’t snicker. The gems here can bolster your armor and weapons. And judging by the monsters who roam Outland, you’re gonna need all the help you can get.

Here’s the rub with “WoW:” Players don’t really have much of a choice but to pony up for the new expansion. Existing “WoW” players can’t really enjoy everything the original game now has to offer without installing “Burning Crusade.” And on the flip side, you can’t  play “Burning Crusade” without having invested in the original “World of Warcraft.”

If you can afford the cost of the expansion plus the $15 monthly online fees (as well as giving up every waking hour), “Burning Crusade” will extend your Azeroth adventures for a long time to come. Just look out for Kruul. Seriously.