Give a man a December the 18th advent calendar window and he can eat chocolate for a day. Give him an entire RPS-approved Fairtrade advent calendar and he can eat chocolate for (almost) a month. Or he could just gobble the lot in one crazed OM NOM NOM frenzy.
Me though, I'm not even going to eat today's chocolate. I'm more of a savoury man, frankly. You? You're into games, arentcha? Here's one, then.
Iiiiiit’s..... (certain parts of) World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade!
Okay, stop bellowing “WHAAAAAAAAAT?” and slamming your fist against your monitor for a second. This one’s a little different from our other calendar entries. I’m not talking about The Burning Crusade: The Game. I’m talking about The Burning Crusade: The Moment.
Nng. Bear with me. I’m as uncomfortable about this as you are. I said to the others that I wasn't sure about this, but they threatened to tell everyone about all those dead hookers in the boot of my car if I didn't agree to it.
But they have a point - it just involves bending the rules slightly. This time, I'm talking about a state of the game that no longer exists, not an experience RPS readers could really have now, more's the pity. Cast your mind back, back, back to early this year, and the launch of The Burning Crusade, World of Warcraft’s first expansion pack. It was a major occurrence for much of the PC gaming community – almost every lapsed WoW player sniffed at it with renewed interest, and the dedicated types were in something like a frenzy of experience point-based excitement. For me, personally, it was an opportunity for the game to fix itself. The raid and pvp grinding element of WoW never appealed to me- a game that had been about exploration and adventure turned into one based on numbers and snobbery come level 60. I couldn’t stand it. Incremental kit improvements weren’t anywhere near enough of a sense of accomplishment to continue.
Then I went to Outland, the new continent, and everything changed. In one fell swoop, the insufferable hardcore players who’d made late-WoW such a stat-centric misery were rendered just like me. The insane Epic loot that they’d put hundreds of hours into collecting was swiftly outdone by mismatched kit I pulled out of a vulture carcass. I was still a nobody, but when everyone else was a nobody, it didn’t matter so much. For a week or two, I had pretty much all I wanted from WoW – new places to explore, a palpable sense of becoming stronger, stumbling into inventive quests, hearing tall tales of beasts and secrets that lurked in the highest-level zones. Adventure!
The thought of returning to WoW now sickens me slightly, but I truly had a fine time in The Burning Crusade’s earliest days. Teamed with a gang of chums, we lapped up all the Outland we could get – even swearing that we wouldn’t go through The Dark Portal that led to this new area until we could do it together. Bestest friends 4 eva!!!!! Except when we finally did all gather to do it, each of us ashamedly revealed that, actually, we’d already been through it – we were each too excited not to.
It didn’t last long. The dedicated players stayed online 24/7, desperate to hit the level 70 cap and return to their life of infinitely looped dungeon-running again as soon as possible. The early areas emptied quickly, and those few of us that were here to casually explore in our spare time found we had almost no-one to group with, no-one to ask for advice. The second honeymoon was over. I scraped my way painfully up to level 70 over the following month or so, and when I finally reached the top of that mountain, all I saw was a barren wasteland of statistics and elitists. The adventure was over.
There’s another reason The Burning Crusade’s in our game-o-calendar, and that’s the Draenei quests. One of the expansion’s two new races, they came complete with a new starting area full of freshly-made missions. While the other new race, The Blood Elves, wasted theirs on a thousand miserable variations on collect 28 pigeon teeth quests, someone deep in Blizzard seemed to be fighting against the dead-eyed machine when it came to make the Draenei challenges.
They were fun. One mission grants you a few minutes on a mount at just level 10, capering about the landscape at joyous speeds that wouldn’t otherwise be possible until level 40, weeks or months down the line. It was the game proving what it could do, the ways it had at its disposal to entertain.
They were varied. Another quest has you don a hilariously unconvincing tree disguise, and lurk in a clearing spying on an enemy rendenzvous. It was pure farce, especially if done in a group – a line of suspiciously wobbling vegetation, creeping slightly forward whenever the enemies turned their backs, and freezing the second they looked around.
They even, on occasion, had personal resonance. One huge quest chain climaxes with an entire village throwing a gratifyingly enormous thank you ceremony for you. In the crowd was every NPC you’d chatted to along the way of this arc. They lined the streets, they cheered, they shouted your name. And there's a space right in the middle of them all for you stand. So you go stand there. And you type /dance, or /train, and you hammer the screenshot key frantically, absolutely overcome with pride. It felt incredible. It was a proper mini-narrative with a proper mini-conclusion, not the sudden fizzle out and a handful of gold pieces the game generally fobs you off with. For once, you weren’t just a hero. You were The Hero, the way a fantasy adventure world is supposed to make you feel all the time.
In the Draenei quests were the first real hints of what World of Warcraft could really be, if only it ever focused on something other than keeping people in the system, repeating themselves endlessly to chase impossibly rare drops. It’s capable of being an incredibly charming game. I wish it could be like that all the time.
So, we reluctantly grant the Burning Crusade a place in our retrospective hearts. But just the first two weeks of the Burning Crusade, a unique moment of promise and adventuring, before the game defaulted back to inflicting untold damage upon the MMORPG genre.